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New center a ‘triage unit’ for front-line policing in Rio Grande neighborhood

S.L. police social workers will work to connect homeless people with services

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SALT LAKE CITY — Relief for the embattled Rio Grande neighborhood is on the way in the form of a new Community Connections Center intended to assist people experiencing homelessness or crisis, city officials said Tuesday.

"It's no secret the Rio Grande neighborhood has had its fair share of struggles over the years. The people of this neighborhood have been begging for some solutions and some relief. Whether you work here or you live here, or you are somebody who is experiencing homelessness, relief can't come soon enough," said Salt Lake City Councilman Derek Kitchen, who represents District 4.

The center, 511 W. 200 South, will be staffed from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays by social workers and caseworkers who are employees of the Salt Lake City Police Department. They will complement community policing efforts in the area to connect people experiencing homelessness and crises with community resources that can help them.

The center will provide short-term therapeutic interventions, crisis intervention, coordinate care between agencies, help people reconnect with family, find work, navigate the behavioral health system and assist them with transportation needs.

The center will also serve as a resource for police officers.

"There's social work our officers have been doing and will continue to be doing to some degree, but now they have a backup, which frees them up to do the crime work that's critical for the safety of this community," said Stan Penfold, vice chairman of the Salt Lake City Council.

Social work manager Lana Dalton said police officers from the department's Crisis Intervention Team and Homeless Services Outreach Team will also be housed in the center. The center is also a resource for bicycle officers who patrol the area.

"Our hope is to be a triage unit for front-line policing. Officers will encounter individuals on the street that have substance abuse or mental health issues and they, in turn, will refer to us. We can either come out to them or bring them to the center here. We'll triage the individual and see what their needs are. … Basically get really creative and do everything we can to help the individual that's in front of us," Dalton said.

The inaugural police social work team will include three case workers, two therapists and Dalton, who is also a licensed therapist.

"We also have service providers who want to come in and use our space and collaborate as well," she said.

To help ensure that the center is not case managing people who are receiving those services elsewhere, Dalton said the Community Connections Center will plug into the Utah Homeless Information Management System, which tracks people who access homeless shelters, transitional housing programs and other services.

"That also makes it nice for us so we can either refer back or say, 'This individual has had police contact. We want to let you know and is there something we can do to support you in your efforts?'"

The center is a partnership among the Salt Lake police, the City Council, the community and the office of Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, the mayor said.

"This center is designed to serve those most in need, those who are most at risk of being taken advantage of by the criminal element who prey on them simply because they are experiencing homelessness," Biskupski said.

"By providing concrete services to this population, we are also making strides in alleviating some of the stress in the Rio Grande neighborhood, something I know neighbors and businesses in this are critically focused on," she said.

Salt Lake Police Chief Mike Brown said his years of working the Rio Grande area have taught him that "we cannot arrest our way out of our problem."

Arresting people who are addicts or struggle with mental illness merely places them temporarily in jail, where few receive the help they need.

The department needs to "rethink what we do. Instead of arresting these people, we need to provide them some sort of avenue so that they can heal, so that they can cure those addictions, so they can become better members of our society."

The Community Connection Center "is a place where we can connect the dots within people's lives. We can start hooking them up with the services they so desperately need so they can start finding their way back into the wellness they deserve," Brown said.

Penfold, whom Biskupski singled out as a tireless advocate for hiring social workers to assist policing efforts, said he hopes the center will be able to document the need for additional mental health and substance use disorder services.

"This, I think, helps us put a spotlight on the need. When we've talked to the chief about how to manage this facility, one of things that is critical is keeping track, counting, how many people do we identify. How many people need services? How many people are impossible to place because there's no place for them to go? It helps us in some ways, make a case for the things that we need long-term."

While the Community Connection Center is part of a package of homeless services reforms that will result from ongoing public processes in the city and Salt Lake County, the need for more behavioral health treatment beds and health coverage is acute, he said.

"One of the things that would help us immensely is Medicaid expansion. Almost everybody we're talking about is looking for services here would be eligible for Medicaid expansion," Penfold said.

Email: marjorie@deseretnews.com