When it comes to the homeless, all the oxygen lately has been consumed by people trying to keep the mayor of Salt Lake County from building a shelter. It’s easy to forget that much of the west side of downtown remains under siege.
Thank you, Sheriff Jim Winder, for reminding everyone of that. It may be important to design a new and better house, but if the one you’ve got right now is on fire, you don’t want the 911 dispatcher to tell you she’d like to send help, but everyone right
| || |
now is on fire, you don’t want the 911 dispatcher to tell you she’d like to send help, but everyone right now is in a meeting with architects.
So the sheriff’s recently unveiled 21-point plan to deal with that fire was important for bringing us all back to reality, even if the plan itself isn’t workable.
But while we’re in reality, let me say something few people seem willing to confront. Moving the homeless to four shelters spread throughout the Salt Lake valley isn’t a guarantee that downtown will become any safer. It certainly isn’t a guarantee that the Rio Grande area, which will remain the home of several service providers, parks and railroad yards even after the Road Home shelter is closed, will become a nice, friendly place.
Readers have sent me accounts of being accosted with requests for money in downtown parking lots before they have a chance to leave their cars, or of the inability to walk a single city block without encountering multiple panhandlers who don’t take “no” easily.
I’ve seen it all first hand. I’ve spoken with business owners who are tired of waiting for things to change.
If you want a close look at ground zero, just hop the Trax blue line and go to the Old GreekTown station, or stay onboard and look through the window, if it makes you feel safer. This is where business owners deal daily with refugees from society’s mainstream, a volatile mix of the mentally ill, people addicted to mind-altering substances, drug dealers, human traffickers, people selling themselves or others in prostitution and, of course, those who simply are down on their luck.
This is where new owners of the Gateway and the city are planning to build a fence along tracks that would — let’s drop the pretenses about traffic safety, please — discourage these people from flowing into shopping areas.
It’s exhibit A in any public hearing for a new homeless shelter. We, people say over and over, don’t want that in our neighborhood.
And while many of these people can’t mask their desires to ignore human suffering, or their lack of decorum in public settings, in that one argument, it must be conceded, they have a point.
The sheriff’s plan would limit the Road Home shelter to 200 by June 1, until it can demonstrate the ability to handle “collateral impacts.” Why 200? Winder hasn’t said, although it makes as much sense as the arbitrary capacity levels proposed for new shelters.
He would set up an urban campground for people needing temporary shelter.
His innovative approach to panhandling would be to let people obtain unique identifiers that could be used to allow people to donate directly to them online — donations that could take the form of vouchers for food or other necessities. He would reduce access to electrical outlets in the area so drug dealers couldn’t keep cell phones charged. Officers would scan the license plates of everyone who drives through the area, checking them against criminal databases.
I see several problems with the plan. So, apparently, do the ACLU and Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown, who told the city council parts of it were immoral and illegal.
The sheriff is, of course, a politician. His tough, no-nonsense approach to the problem strikes a chord that no doubt harmonizes with the tone of recent public hearings. But at least he has a plan.
Where are the alternate plans?
We know what city, county and state leaders are designing for the future of homeless shelters. We know of the arguments surrounding new shelter locations. What about the second part of the problem — making the Rio Grande neighborhood safe once more?