Mary Woodhead, a Salt Lake City planning commissioner who works kitty-corner from Pioneer Park, remembers when she could walk there during her lunch break, undisturbed.
Then last summer, the park began to swell with transients. Nowadays, she is accosted almost every time she goes there.
"It’s now excruciatingly frightening," she said. "… [The park] feels completely unsafe. There’s continuous crime. There’s continuous drug dealing."
That’s what was on her mind as she and the other commissioners convened Wednesday to decide whether to approve The Road Home’s continued use of St. Vincent de Paul’s cafeteria as an overflow shelter during the winter.
The commission greenlighted the continued use of the cafeteria on a 4-2 vote after hearing heartfelt testimony from city leaders and the public. But the commission also devoted discussion to a more immediate problem: the tide of homelessness around Pioneer Park as spring returns and the threat of crime.
The problem is nothing new. The homeless predate The Road Home. The shelter opened its doors, and the neighborhood gentrified around it.
Service providers have spent decades trying to help the city’s desperate. But lately, many people who work and live around the park fear there’s been a tipping point.
"The past year has been incredibly difficult in this neighborhood … and I don’t think that’s just conjecture," said Jason Mathis of the Downtown Alliance business group during Wednesday’s meeting. "I don’t think that’s just our impression. I think that it had a definite turn."
Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank reported Wednesday that crime is down in the area. But planning commissioner Marie Taylor suggested that the decrease could be due partly to the people in the neighborhood giving up and accepting the problem as the new paradigm.
"So it has gotten worse, or is worse, but you’re just not getting as many calls about it. It’s kind of the new norm for some people," Taylor told Burbank — who agreed "to a certain extent."
Like the greater problem of homelessness, whether crime is down in the area is a nuanced issue.
There were more forcible rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults in 2013 than in any year since at least 2008, according to statistics provided Monday by the Salt Lake City Police Department. In fact, there were almost twice as many aggravated assaults in 2013 than in 2008.
The statistics account for any such crimes between 100 South and 500 South from 200 West to 600 West, and do not differentiate between those that involve transients and those that do not.
Meanwhile, burglary, larceny/theft and motor vehicle theft are considerably lower than they have been in recent years. And adding up all of these more serious offenses, including homicide and arson, the whole group trends down: There were 8 percent fewer major crimes in 2013 than the year before.
There is an even greater decrease when it comes to lesser crimes, a long list including vandalism, drug abuse and drunkenness. Such offenses were down 16 percent in 2013 compared to 2012. However, 2012 was a high point, and 2013’s rate of lesser offenses was still higher than in 2008-2011.
Litter, human waste, loitering, panhandling and other "assaults on the neighborhood" remain a serious concern for the people who live there, said Christian Harrison, president and chairman of the Downtown Community Council. Harrison added that he’s encouraged to have seen service providers engaging the neighborhood in the past few months, but added that he wants more than "pat assurances that things will get better."
The city and the providers are trying. Last August, the city organized an outreach to the transients at the park to help them find programs. Police officers talk to the homeless about the same. Mayor Ralph Becker encouraged other cities, through the Council of Governments, to pool money and bring more street outreach to Salt Lake City, said Kathy Bray of Volunteers of America.
That outreach should begin in the next couple of months, depending on when contracts are straightened out, Bray said.
In the meantime, the overflow shelter remains in place. Burbank and others strongly discouraged moving it, since the population’s best bet to find help is to concentrate homeless services. The transients see the downtown corridor as their home, Burbank said — they are not going to go somewhere else. And if transients stop finding their way into an overflow shelter, he said, crime will rise.
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