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In preparation of special session, Utah lawmakers tour Rio Grande shelter, discuss proposed 'safe space'

SALT LAKE CITY — Drug-sniffing dogs. A large, tent structure to shelter from the elements. An ID card required for access.

Exactly how the state-controlled area called the "safe space" officials want to create on a segment of Rio Grande Street will look and function is still under discussion, but Utah Department of Workforce Services officials Tuesday told lawmakers on the Social Services Appropriations Subcommittee that those are a few elements of what they expect for the fenced off area.

"I like to describe it as an expanded courtyard for the Weigand Center," said Jonathan Hardy, director of Housing and Community Development in the state's Department of Workforce Services. He referenced Catholic Community Service's homeless resource facility, which requires an ID system for access.

The aim, he said, is to identify people in the area seeking services and drive away those selling drugs and preying on the vulnerable.

But when Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, pointed out an ID system might also drive away sensitive populations — such as domestic violence victims — and Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, asked if it would cause people addicted to illegal substances to avoid the area, Hardy acknowledged those challenges but assured the area will be welcoming to those in need.

"I don't think anybody's intent is to arrest our way out of this problem," he said. "We don't want to categorize everybody as a criminal; we want to make sure they get the services they need."

The discussion came a day before the Utah Legislature was slated to consider a change to state law to allow the long-term road closure on the corner of 200 South and Rio Grande Street for the next two years, until the Road Home's troubled downtown shelter shutters in July 2019 and three new homeless resource centers open.

The law change would allow the city to "indefinitely" close a road and convert it to a new use in order to "mitigate unsafe conditions or nuisances," according to the bill, HB1002.

It's the next step to create the safe space House Speaker Greg Hughes has pushed hard for over the last several weeks as part of Operation Rio Grande, the massive multi-agency effort to separate criminals from the vulnerable seeking help.

Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, wanting a public process before using her administrative power to temporarily close the road, earlier this month signed a temporary lease to the state to take control of the area.

But that lease will expire on Nov. 30 if the Legislature doesn't pass a new law to allow a longer-term closure, which would then pave the way for the Salt Lake City Council to create an ordinance to make it a reality.

Lawmaker support

During Tuesday's meeting, some lawmakers on the Social Services Appropriations Subcommittee toured the Rio Grande Shelter, St. Vincent DePaul Dining Hall and the proposed safe space, where state officials have already installed a chain-link fence perimeter.

"Makes you feel guilty to go home to your bed," remarked Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden, who said he's supportive of the road closure.

Outside, pigeons scoured the street while men and women sat on the curbs. When lawmakers walked by, one woman threatened another that she would "kick your teeth in" before storming off. Several Salt Lake City police officers stood watch nearby.

Though the sidewalks are regularly power washed, the stench of urine still lingers in the air.

To Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, it was a much more "controlled environment" than just over a month ago, when Operation Rio Grande started making its first arrests. He, too, said he's supportive of the road closure and Operation Rio Grande.

"Last time I stood out here, I had bottles thrown at me. Now I'm not nervous at all out walking through here. I mean, obviously, there's still work to do here," he said, "but I think anybody who had been down here prior to Aug. 14, they'd see a big difference."

City action

Though several steps need to happen before a long-term lease is approved, state officials are proceeding as if the safe space law and ordinance will pass.

Tuesday night, the Salt Lake City Council gave initial support when it voted to approve a resolution authorizing a waiver of lease fees for the closed road, a legal requirement whenever city land is leased for less than market value.

If the Legislature passes its bill, the final step lies with the City Council to create the ordinance.

Though City Council members voted to waive the lease fees, it was not without some concern for the overall plan for the area.

Councilman Derek Kitchen raised the same worry as Escamilla and Ward — how will an ID system impact those needing services?

"We don't want the (ID) card to be a barrier to entry," Kitchen said.

It's a similar concern at least one homeless service provider — Crossroads Urban Center — has raised, though the facilities inside the safe space, the Road Home and Catholic Community Services are supportive.

But Hardy said the ID cards will mirror the same system Catholic Community Services uses for access to the Weigand Center. He also said if clients would rather not get a card, they could still access the Road Home shelter, just not through the fenced off area.

City Council Chairman Stan Penfold is supportive of the road closure, with conditions.

"I think it's important we support this direction, but also continually ask the questions and apply the pressure so that the under-represented population we are representing have a voice," he said.

Budget gaps

One of those looming issues includes the funding for Operation Rio Grande's $67 million price tag over the next two years.

Though Wednesday's special session won't address the full funding — which is expected for the general session in January — lawmakers on the Social Services Appropriations Subcommittee gave initial approval to a bill that would shuffle $4.9 million in state funds to help pay for Operation Rio Grande.

HB1001 would transfer the money from the Department of Corrections to the general fund, which would then go to the Department of Workforce Service to use for "enforcement, adjudication, corrections, and providing and addressing services for homeless individuals and families," according to the bill.

But about $21 million over two years has yet to be budgeted, though Hughes has said it's expected the state will pay about half — about $5.25 a year — while Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County will split the remainder, about $2.6 million a year.

While Biskupski hasn't expressed any opposition to the budget, she has voiced concern that Salt Lake City is already spending more than $10 million a year on the Rio Grande area. The City Council has yet to discuss exactly how much it will be contributing to that funding gap.

However, representing Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams on Tuesday, his senior policy adviser on criminal justice, Noella Sudbury, said the county has agreed to come forward with the additional $5.2 million over the next two years, to bring the county's total contribution to more than $13.5 from now until July 2019.

"While this amount is subject to our County Council’s approval, we are optimistic that it will be approved," Sudbury said.

However, Sudbury said if the state's Medicaid waiver not approved by the end of the year, treatment providers will have "no choice but to discontinue some existing programs" and won't be able to expand as hoped to create more than 240 new treatment beds by the end of the year.