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Rio Grande stakeholders demand immediate action on crime, homelessness

SALT LAKE CITY — Business owners and residents formed the Pioneer Park Coalition more than two years ago to free Rio Grande Street from the clutches of homelessness and crime.

But has there been any improvement?

That's the question Bryson Garbett, a prominent Salt Lake developer and now chairman of the coalition, asked at the group's monthly meeting Wednesday.

"In my opinion, things are in fact worse," he said. "Things are worse than they've ever been."

Business owners including Pete Henderson, owner of Rio Grande Cafe, concurred — baffled by the daily influx of people camping along the 500 West median. He said the campers create a "huge issue" for local businesses, leaving litter and even defecating outside store fronts.

"We're talking about 1,000 to 1,500 homeless," Henderson said. "That's literally where they spend their days. When the shelter pushes them out in the morning, they go there. It's a filthy, terrible place."

The unsanitary conditions, drug trafficking and safety issues that follow large crowds of homeless people are creating a massive issue for businesses in the Rio Grande area, Garbett said.

"What's happening there is not acceptable for the homeless, and it's not acceptable for the people who live or work there," he said. "And it's not a smart thing for our city or state as far as the image it projects — an image of how we take care of our people."

Something has to be done, Garbett said, and the city can't wait any longer.

That's why Pioneer Park Coalition members Wednesday approved a list of immediate problems facing the Rio Grande area and solutions they will be urging city leaders to implement.

Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County have done immense work in advancing long-term homelessness solutions over the past year, Garbett acknowledged, noting the Utah Legislature's recently approved $27 million, three-year grant for shelters and prevention programs.

In the meantime, Garbett said the city can't ignore problems that need immediate attention, including open defecation and urination, storefront loitering, curbside drug trafficking, aggressive panhandling, theft, lewd behavior, littering, camping on the street, and overcrowded service facilities.

The coalition's proposed solutions? Urge city leaders to fund more Rio Grande beat police officers and adopt immediate policies targeting aggressive panhandling, camping and loitering.

More specifically, longtime advocate for homeless people Pamela Atkinson proposed the creation of a city or health department law that prohibits people from handing out food to the homeless without having a food handler permit.

Common roadside meal service along 500 West causes loitering and discourages homeless people from seeking assistance from appropriate places, she said.

"People on 5th West will tell you, 'We're just waiting for people to bring us food,'" Atkinson said.

Roadside food donations also create a danger, she added, because homeless people are accepting food from volunteers who aren't authorized to prepare food.

"I don't condemn them for wanting to help," Atkinson said. "But this should have been abolished a long time ago."

The coalition will also be lobbying for stricter enforcement of The Road Home's 1,062-person maximum capacity.

"We're concerned about the safety of those in The Road Home," Garbett said. "There's a real issue when they are beyond capacity. That puts a lot of people at risk."

Ken Halterman, a former Salt Lake police officer, also plans to encourage city leaders to implement a public education campaign against panhandling.

Halterman proposed drafting volunteers to stand at popular panhandling spots, like freeway on- and off-ramps, with signs reading: "Stop paying for bad habits. Be the solution, not the problem. Contribute to charities that really help."

"We've got to have some short-term solutions, and I think these are all possibilities we need to explore — and not just talk about," Atkinson said. "We need to take some action."

Garbett said he's optimistic the coalition can make a difference. He noted that coalition members will be pushing hard for their priorities during the Salt Lake City Council's budget hearing scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday.

"It's a matter of priority," he said. "The mayor seemed very committed to homelessness in her campaign, and the City Council seems to be getting on board."

As for long-term goals, the coalition last month unanimously voted to ask city leaders to relocate emergency shelter services away from Salt Lake's metro business district.

Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski has said breaking up The Road Home's 1,000-plus population will take time, and the final decision around the shelter's future will be made through the city's site evaluation committee.


Twitter: KatieMcKellar1