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Rio Grande neighborhood 'more unsafe than it's ever been'

SALT LAKE CITY — Conditions in the Rio Grande neighborhood are reaching a crisis point, a longtime advocate for Utah's poor told members of the Homeless Services Site Evaluation Commission on Wednesday.

"I think it's going to become, if it is not already, a crisis down there," said community advocate Pamela Atkinson.

Recently, Atkinson led a group of 22 volunteers from her church to serve a meal at Catholic Community Services' St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall.

"For the first time in 20 years, it's more unsafe than it’s ever been down there. I ended up keeping most of the people behind the glass in the kitchen and not having too many people out serving people who were sitting there. It became unsafe," largely because the behavior of people using drugs and the need for more mental health services, she said.

"That's the first time in 20 years that I felt unsafe in that situation," Atkinson said.

Micah Peters, a member of the Pioneer Park Coalition and CEO of ClearWater Homes, said while the site evaluation commission's charge is long-range planning for the future of homeless services, "I also want to make sure we’re focusing on what’s happening right now."

The process is such it could be two years before new shelters are constructed, he said. In the meantime, conditions are deteriorating.

"I’m a businessman in the Pioneer Park area and summer is here. The tsunami is upon us and the populations are crazy. And substance abuse and drug distribution is outrageous," Peters said.

Kathy Bray, president and CEO of homeless services provider Volunteers of America-Utah, said the nonprofit organization has growing concern for the safety of its outreach workers.

"The rules we're putting into place for people that are doing street outreach are what to stay away from," she said.

Bray said she hopes when Salt Lake City Police Department social workers are fully deployed that they can work in tandem with service providers to develop more effective ways to serve people on the street.

The department's mental health unit is based out of the Community Connections Center, 511 W. 200 South. As of this week, the department's new social workers, crisis intervention team and homeless outreach service team are all under one roof, said Salt Lake Deputy Police Chief Josh Scharman.

"We have a very aggressive plan to get them engaged in the community. One of the most important things we want to do with our social workers is not overlap or duplicate services," Scharman said.

Commission member Mike Stransksy, founding principal of GSBS Architects, which has offices in the neighborhood, said he recently attended a community meeting on the commission's site selection work where attendees urged access to services.

As the conversation continued, the discussion turned to: "How do we deal with the drug problem? How do we deal with mental health? I know you can't say this in Utah, but health care would help. That's just coming from the streets. Health care would help," Stransky said.

As the commission empaneled by Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski continues to develop a criteria for site selection for new homeless services providers, commission members must keep current conditions in mind, said Matthew Minkevitch, executive director of The Road Home.

"For the last 11 ½ months, we've served just under 8,000 people for whom we've provided about 380,000 nights of shelter. In terms of the numbers of people we've served, we're up about 13 percent overall as compared to year-to-date last year," Minkevitch said.

"We've done that in order to meet demand. There's not a particular incentive we have," he said. "We don't get a reimbursement per bed, so we're incentivized to make sure our beds are filled. Demand requires that of us. We had over 1,000 people in our shelters (Tuesday) night."

But as the commission's discussion centers on shelters that would serve smaller numbers, the question rises: "Where will the others go?" he queried.

"I don't think anyone is suggesting they will just go away and it will be OK. I know you're more thoughtful about that. But I want to make sure we're thinking about that," Minkevitch said.

Scharman said he concurs with Atkinson's assessment of conditions in the area, which has been exacerbated by a critical mass of people in the area.

"Most of the people who are becoming a problem for law enforcement are not signing up to go to the Weigand Center or they're not staying, necessarily, at The Road Home. They're coming down there to engage in criminal conduct with narcotics, buying or selling, or it's become a social thing. They're coming down there and they just hang out down there along 500 West. That leads not only to crime that occurs, it leads to the perception of so many people, an overwhelming amount of people," Scharman said.

Other complicating factors are a dearth of mental health and substance abuse treatment slots, the county jail running at capacity and changes in state laws that reduced penalties on some drug offense to misdemeanors, which means offenders generally do not face jail time, he said. While there is sound philosophy behind that approach, people still need treatment and the structure of the criminal justice system to help ensure they comply with treatment, he said.

"Violent crime is actually down in the area, but the cases where officers are getting injured during arrests are increasing. In fact, I'm seeing it almost daily between needle sticks, violent resisting or flat-out people who are in crisis," Scharman said.

The use of spice, herbs laced with chemicals to mimic the effects of marijuana, is a particular concern because it is inexpensive, readily available and people's response to the drug can vary from passing out, "walking around in a stupor and some people are fighting mad and jumping up on cars. … Each person, each reaction is different each time."

Still, Scharman said he believes that many homeless people are comfortable turning to police who patrol the area.

"Some of our people are much more responsive to our officers than they are to outreach teams from some of our services providers, which I wouldn't have expected. But we've built some terrific relationships and I'm very optimistic about how that's going go," he said.