Facing a surge of criminal activity surrounding downtown Salt Lake City’s homeless population, Mayor Ralph Becker and Police Chief Chris Burbank are hitting back.
The strategy: Get tough on criminals while helping the homeless get back on their feet.
At a Monday morning news conference at 500 West and 300 South — what one outreach worker described as ground zero for drug traffic among the homeless — the mayor said he is rebooting the "Salt Lake Solutions Effort," which seeks to coordinate service providers to reach out to the homeless. "It involves the combined work of many, many people."
In addition, Becker said he will ask businesses owners and residents "to focus on what can be done to make Pioneer Park [and the Rio Grande district] a more inviting atmosphere."
Helping the homeless return to the mainstream remains a challenge, the mayor said. "This is not a short-term problem, and we won’t take a short-term approach."
But Sheryl Gillilan, who operates Art Access on 500 West, said the news-conference area is usually filled with homeless people sleeping, dealing drugs or fighting.
"Homeless people don’t scare me," she told the mayor. "What scares me is that we watch drug deals all day long."
Gillilan, who has operated the business on 500 West for seven years, noticed a sizable increase in numbers of homeless people this spring — along with the drug traffic and violence that follow.
"When people say they won’t come down here because they don’t feel safe, we’re dead in the water," she said of her business.
In the Rio Grande neighborhood, drug dealers target the homeless, Burbank said, adding that police "will not tolerate" drug traffic.
The chief emphasized that homelessness is not illegal. "Our focus is on those who commit crime. They victimize those who are homeless."
Burbank released arrest numbers from the neighborhood for Sept. 25-27. They include 24 arrests for crack cocaine, 10 for heroin and two for methamphetamine. Of those arrested, 18 are staying in the homeless shelter, eight are foreign nationals who may be connected to a gang, six live outside Salt Lake City along the Wasatch Front and four are from Salt Lake City.
Although he didn’t provide a further breakdown, the chief said those selling drugs most likely would be prosecuted for felony charges. Those buying small amounts could get probation, treatment and community service.
"Time and time again, we’ve come down here and made arrests," he said. "We want to get out of that cycle" and provide treatment and resources for the homeless.
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