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$200K will fund Pioneer Park porta-potties; park police funding unclear

SALT LAKE CITY — As Rio Grande Street and Pioneer Park continue to buckle under the pressures of homelessness and crime, the Salt Lake City Council is aiming to pump more than a half-million dollars into solutions.

But exactly what those solutions would be are still under deliberation — all while a Rio Grande business and residents group is demanding not only long-term change, but also short-term action.

"We understand (long-term solutions) are going to take a few years to get down the road, but we feel like there's some things we can be doing in the meantime to fix what's going on downtown," Jonathan Harman, executive director of the Pioneer Park Coalition, told the City Council Tuesday night.

Their first priority? More cops.

"Prostitution, drug trafficking, open defecation in streets, child abuse. These are all things we're actively documenting every day," Harding said, urging the City Council to address public safety issues now while homeless groups work on addressing the deep-rooted problems, like drug addiction and mental illness.

Last week, the Pioneer Park Coalition also urged city leaders to consider adopting new policies to target aggressive panhandling, camping and loitering, suggestions that did not prompt any discussion among council members Tuesday but were not ruled out.

"It's all on the table," Councilman James Rogers said. "We'll have those discussions for sure."

But for now, Rogers said the City Council's focus is on money — as next year's budget must be approved by June 22 — and how to make a dent in the city's homeless problems.

The City Council started by giving initial approval to earmark $380,000 in one-time money for homeless services, though it's not yet decided how it will be divvied up, Rogers said.

"From more policing to social workers, to coming up with some more money for service providers, those are all possibilities," he said.

The City Council voted to allocate the $380,000 from three social worker positions that remained vacant all through last year. The budget won't be final until the council formally adopts it, but the allocation was approved by an informal straw poll.

"I know the $380,000 can benefit the entire homeless population if it's used correctly," Rogers said.

The council also gave initial approval to spend $200,000 on pilot program to bring more portable toilets to the Rio Grande area to help prevent public defecation. The toilet facilities would be cleaned nightly and attended by an employee 24/7.

The council's proposed $580,000 toward homeless issues would add to the $9.25 million grant in state funds the Utah Legislature appropriated this year as a first installment to a $27 million, three-year investment in homeless services reform.

"We're not saying we're not interested in addressing the long-term social issues that most of the people down there are experiencing that need to be dealt with, including drug addiction and mental health," said Pioneer Park Coalition member Kristina Robb. "But we need more police."

Councilman Derek Kitchen said after Tuesday's public hearing that he will be supporting using the remaining $380,000 for more beat cops in the Rio Grande neighborhood.

"We can't police ourselves out of this problem," he acknowledged, "but we need to disrupt the system, and this is the first step. Having more police presence will deter crime and drug trafficking. … We need to do something for the community, and we have to take immediate action, even if it's temporary."

As for the Pioneer Park Coalition's proposal to enact new policies on aggressive panhandling, camping and loitering, Utah human rights advocates Tuesday urged the City Council to be cautious when considering making any new laws that could violate personal rights.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah sent council members a letter detailing those concerns.

"While it is understandable that downtown residents and merchants are discomforted and frustrated by the sight of so many poor and vulnerable people living in extreme poverty, the ACLU of Utah strongly recommends that the Salt Lake City Council and other city leaders carefully weigh the many constitutional implications of municipal ordinances aimed at reducing the visibility of these individuals before adopting any of (the Pioneer Park Coalition's) stated goals," the letter states.

Ordinances targeting loitering, panhandling, camping or sleeping in public have attracted civil rights litigation in other cities, including Boise and Honolulu, ACLU officials warned.

"Criminally prosecuting those individuals for something as innocent as sleeping, when they have no safe, legal place to go, violates their constitutional rights,” said Vanita Gupta, a former national ACLU director who now heads the Department of Justice's civil rights division. “Moreover, enforcing these ordinances is poor public policy. Needlessly pushing homeless individuals into the criminal justice system does nothing to break the cycle of poverty or prevent homelessness in the future.”

Email: kmckellar@deseretnews.com

Twitter: KatieMcKellar1