The nonemergency dispatch line Salt Lake City officials routinely urge residents to call to report concerns regarding the homeless won’t take reports over the phone, Liberty Wells residents told Mayor Jackie Biskupski and other city officials at a community forum Wednesday night.
The mayor, taken aback by the reports, promised immediate action to find out why the report line, 801-799-3000, was turning away callers.
“I’m very disturbed by hearing that,” the mayor told the audience of about 80 people at the Tracy Aviary education center.
“I had no idea that you were calling 799-3000 and they’re telling you they’re not taking your call. That doesn’t work for me,” she said, pledging to “create a strategy over the next 30 days to make this community safer.”
The city’s emergency and nonemergency calls are handled by a standalone dispatch center that routes incoming calls to the appropriate agency for handling or response.
Biskupski said she would speak to dispatch center Director Scott Freitag and convene a meeting to investigate the residents’ complaints by Friday. She asked the residents, anxious about rising homeless populations and neighborhood crime, for time to find a fix.
“Give us a chance to regroup and take a look at how this is being deployed and where the gaps are,” she said.
The mayor’s appearance at the Liberty Wells group gave residents a chance to air grievances and concerns over what is widely seen as an increase in homeless people in their area, driven by Operation Rio Grande, the mid-August law enforcement push to thwart crime around the The Road Home’s shelter in downtown Salt Lake City.
The clampdown caused some of the downtown area’s homeless people to disperse to other neighborhoods, although Biskupski and Police Chief Mike Brown, who also addressed residents at the forum, told the group those who dispersed had returned to the original area.
Other concerns voiced Wednesday:
Overcrowding • Resident Andy Eatchel told the mayor that homeless people who were given vouchers to stay in area apartments invited others to stay with them, sometimes by the dozen.
“That’s overwhelming to a neighborhood,” Eatchel said. “What in the world are we supposed to do when this kind of stuff goes on?”
Biskupski said several housing authorities serve Salt Lake City and could be handing out vouchers to the same property.
“I don’t know that there is anything in state law that prohibits the number of vouchers in a particular building,” she said.
Timing • Several residents questioned why Operation Rio Grande was undertaken before the city had developed a plan for dealing with its possible repercussions, including potential dispersal of homeless people.
“Do you think we kind of jumped the gun?” asked Christopher Sanchez. “It sounds like we don’t have resources set up to deal with the people we dispersed.”
Sanchez said he wanted a road map for proceeding. “If we don’t have that road map, we’re just driving all over the place right now.”
Biskupski said the timing of the Rio Grande initiative was determined by the state, not the city.
“The state is really driving all of this. They are the biggest financial contributor to the changing dynamic in the Rio Grande neighborhood,” she said. “Some decisions are made that maybe aren’t at the best time. But we are stuck with that.”
Resources • Resident Kate Tipple said she had been told police officers were redeployed for Rio Grande at the expense of other areas.
“You’re losing our trust here,” she said. “What are the resources that we actually have here around Liberty Park?”
Deputy Chief Josh Scharman responded that patrol units “never decreased in any way” as a result of the operation.
Asked again about the timing of Operation Rio Grande, Biskupski said that rising crime around the shelter was affecting all of Salt Lake City and had to be addressed without waiting for related support services to be fully in place.
“The criminal activity down there was drawing more criminals into our community,” she said. “At some point, you had to put an end to that free for all.”