Asked if they wanted to turn the whirring air conditioner back on, westside Salt Lake City residents chose — like some of the officials sitting before them — to take the heat.
“I want to hear what people are saying,” said one of about 60 area residents who on Friday night poured into the St. Patrick Parish social hall in Poplar Grove, where some say they have observed an increase in criminal activity and encampments of homeless people after a dramatic crackdown on lawlessness to the east.
Alan Ruelas told a panel that included House Speaker Greg Hughes and Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski that his 3-year-old son last week brought him a needle he’d found in a park where Ruelas saw apparent drug users.
“That was scary,” Ruelas said. ”I searched him, made sure he didn‘t poke himself. I called the police. They arrived, but these people just got talked to.”
Salt Lake City School District board member Tiffany Sandberg said there was a ”huge increase in drug paraphernalia being left on the [Jackson Elementary] playground” — though Principal Jana Edward later added that the situation has improved since law enforcement was notified.
Shesh Tipton, a Poplar Grove resident whose daily walk takes her through the International Peace Gardens, said her husband has picked up seven or eight needles on the route.
Said Sandberg: ”The police are doing a lot, and they’re trying really hard to help us. But I think that this is such an insurmountable problem right now that there may not be enough police officers, even with the help from the county and the state.”
Friday marked the end of the second week of Operation Rio Grande. More than 600 people have been arrested as part of the effort to increase public safety in the eponymous downtown district, home to an 1,100-bed homeless shelter as well as condos, hotels, restaurants and a shopping mall.
Officials have said they expected to see a ripple effect in surrounding communities and that they have closely tracked migrating criminal activity. Again Friday, they asked affected residents to share their accounts, and Hughes urged community organizer Michael Clara, who arranged the meeting, to continue to post photos of problem areas.
Given what he perceived as escalating violence and drug use near the downtown shelter, that activity was going to spread with or without Operation Rio Grande, Hughes said.
“What I‘m afraid is your local libraries, your local parks, your park strips — if we don’t get ahold of this crime that’s going on, and this ecosystem of crime, it’s spreading anyway, and we need to do something about that,” Hughes said.
Josh Murray said he welcomed the increase in resources but asked that officers not profile people based on their appearance of homelessness. Murray said he was followed by a Highway Patrol vehicle as he rode his bike into a 7-Eleven parking lot, and that a trooper ”slowed almost to a stop watching me.”
A few at Friday night’s meeting held signs promoting treatment and compassion — which are promised in phases two (treatment) and three (employment opportunity) of the state-led operation.
Hughes told attendees Friday that organizers need to find more safe alternative places for involuntarily homeless people to go if the city is going to end camping.
“We‘re working on that,” he said. ”It’ll be much easier for us to enforce these encampment ordinances ... when we create and have this safe space, and when we can assure people that we’re not just using the word ’safe,’ it is safe, then we can say, ’You can’t camp here. You can’t be here.’”
Salt Lake City police Chief Mike Brown said that in the early 1990s through the 2000s, police combated an ”insane” open-air drug market at Pioneer Park by arresting as many people as possible.
“Guess what: We were tagging people with felonies, and there was no way they were going to climb out of that hole,” he said. “We were incarcerating, rather than treating.”
Brown has repeatedly pointed to the work of social workers through his department’s Community Connection Center, and officials expect 61 new residential treatment beds to become available by the end of September.
Another 180 planned treatment beds appear to be contingent on Medicaid expansion, though details about the finances of Operation Rio Grande remain scarce.