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Following Speaker Hughes' call for homeless 'czar,' talks among mayors and governor underway

SALT LAKE CITY — The day after House Speaker Greg Hughes voiced acute frustration over the mayhem surrounding downtown's overcrowded homeless shelter — calling for a homeless "czar" and even loosely suggesting that it could be seen as a job for the National Guard — phones began ringing.

Gov. Gary Herbert, who wasn't available for comment Thursday, had a "productive conversation" with Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski and Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams on Thursday afternoon to discuss the state's role in how to better manage the lawlessness in the Rio Grande neighborhood, according to Herbert's spokesman, Paul Edwards.

A joint meeting with both mayors, the governor and legislative leadership — including Hughes — is expected in the "coming days" to discuss Hughes' call for action, Edwards said, noting that Herbert is "open" to exploring the speaker's call for a homelessness czar or even discuss the possibility of additional state resources if they're needed.

"We're clearly at the point where there is a significant crisis, a humanitarian crisis in that part of the city that requires a very vigorous response, especially from law enforcement," Edwards said.

"We are very concerned about the failure to enforce things like loitering and camping laws in that part of the city, and what it means for the perpetuation of lawlessness, the drug dealing," Edwards added. "And so if it becomes an issue related to the resources the city and county might need in order to better enforce their own statutes and ordinances, we're very much interested in having a conversation about how those resources can go forward."

In an interview Thursday, Hughes said he floated the idea of the National Guard coming to Salt Lake City to "grab the community's attention" and "start a conversation" about the need to regain control of the Rio Grande area.

"Because what's happening down there is so violent and unsafe," Hughes said. "If you were to have ever (called for) the National Guard before, that would have been hyperbole, and people would roll their eyes. But I think you can have a straight-faced conversation (about it) right now."

Hughes said he's not actually calling for the National Guard to intervene, but making a point that the situation in downtown Salt Lake City has reached boiling point.

Edwards called Hughes' mention of the National Guard a "provocative statement, but indicative of how this is a serious issue." The solution, however, likely lies within city, county and state resources.

"Gov. Herbert very much believes that it's local governments, counties and local organizations that have the best knowledge about how this can be dealt with," Edwards said.

But, Edwards added that it's "clearly a challenge" to coordinate city, county and state efforts to combat homelessness issues, particularly the criminals and drug dealers that "prey" on the vulnerable, so a discussion about a homeless czar is an "important conversation to have."

"The question is who and what agency," Edwards noted, but the governor is "very much" open to exploring the idea.

It's a sentiment shared by McAdams and Biskupski — the two mayors who have been most embroiled in the controversy as they both try to overhaul the county's homeless services model.

"For the long term, things are headed in the right direction," McAdams said on KSL Newsradio's "The Doug Wright Show" Thursday, referencing the city and county plans to close the overcrowded, 1,100-bed downtown shelter by June 2019 and open three new homeless resource centers at scattered sites. "But we've got to do something in the short term."

The county mayor said he shares Hughes' frustration — as does Biskupski, according to her spokesman, Matthew Rojas.

Rojas said Biskupski spoke with Hughes Thursday afternoon to highlight ongoing efforts that have only just been funded this month, but also express where the city could use a hand.

"She was like, 'Look, I'm not going to sit there and say, I don't need help.' We've been saying we want help for quite some time. This is a statewide issue," Rojas said. "What she made clear is she could use help in trying to organize and coordinate the nonprofits down there."

Rojas also said city officials have also tried to figure out how to better enforce camping and loitering laws in the Rio Grande area, but they often run into legal hurdles while trying to avoid violating constitutional rights.

"There are clear legal questions on how to tighten those ordinances," Rojas said, "so if the state can do something about that, of course the mayor is willing to work with them."