Before ceding a portion of Rio Grande Street to state control for up to two years, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski said the public should weigh in.
The results of an online survey are loud and clear: Go for it.
Biskupski said after a Wednesday evening panel discussion that she felt ”like I have the green light” to enter into a lease agreement that she had been publicly pressured by House Speaker Greg Hughes to sign for more than a week.
City spokesman Matthew Rojas said that 1,300 people had responded to the survey as of Wednesday afternoon: Seventy-eight percent said that a temporary closure of the stretch between The Road Home and Catholic Community Services ”will increase the safety of those seeking homeless services,” and 76 percent said it ”will benefit the larger community.”
Groups such as the Crossroads Urban Center and the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah have been more critical about elements of the state’s vision, which has so far been sketched roughly by officials speaking at events like the one held Wednesday at The Gateway.
Championed by Hughes since the earliest planning stages of Operation Rio Grande — a $67 million effort to reduce lawlessness near the 210 S. Rio Grande St. homeless shelter — the proposed street closure would bar access to anyone not in possession of a ”coordinated services card,” with provisions in place for volunteers and deliveries.
The street would be fenced off, and the resulting enclosure would provide a ”safe space” that would have two purposes: 1. It would give service seekers a place to go where they wouldn’t be preyed upon by lawbreakers, and 2. It would blunt constitutional objections about enforcing camping and loitering ordinances elsewhere in the city because officers could present violators with a reasonable alternative.
Without that space, Hughes said, the tendrils of cartels will inch their way back into a neighborhood from which drug dealers fled during a mid-August crackdown.
Biskupski has used her mayoral authority to close the street for up to 30 days, but she has yet to lease the street to the state for a longer term — an agreement that would be subject to potential City Council approval after a public hearing scheduled for Sept. 19.
A memo sent to the City Council last week by Biskupski’s chief of staff, Patrick Leary, said the city “will receive a unique benefit … because the [Division of Facilities, Construction and Management] intends to partner with one or more homeless-service providers to ... provide a ‘safe space’ for these individuals to get the services they need and require. The lease will provide the further benefit of helping eliminate the criminal elements and nuisances in and around the leased area.”
Hughes said after Wednesday’s subdued — and moderator-controlled — discussion that he had not been sure what to expect from the public process.
“I felt like there would be some suspicion, some worry about what we were talking about,” he said. ”I think I heard it in the questions that were being asked about the nature of a safe space, and is it really safe — those are good questions, and I was glad to have an opportunity to answer them.”
Some pieces of the puzzle, like the fence and the ID cards, were called for in 2015 by Texas-based homeless services consultant Robert Marbut, who has consulted with an influential group of area business owners, developers and residents — the Pioneer Park Coalition — and who said Wednesday that he was following Operation Rio Grande ”very, very closely.”
An enclosure makes sense, Marbut said, because with the concentration of service providers on Rio Grande Street, ”you sort of have this default mall, so how do you better manage that mall and organize it? It could be done very well. Likewise, if you just put a fence around it and don’t get things right, you’ll actually make things worse.”
“Part of my frustration watching from afar is people are coming up with solutions before they figure out exactly what their problem is,” said Marbut, who has been included on a ”few” calls during the planning stages of Operation Rio Grande and who wished it were informed to a greater degree by data about individuals’ length of homelessness and community connectedness.
Crossroads Urban Center, a nonprofit serving low-income Utahns, also proposed a street closure in 2015, but Crossroads’ Bill Tibbitts said the nonprofit is troubled that the area would be restricted to people who have ID cards, and that law enforcement might be allowed to herd homeless people into the space.
“There are a lot of people on the streets who have paranoia issues, whether justified or not,” Tibbitts said. ”There are a lot of people who are going to say: ‘I don‘t want any part of that.’ ... I like the idea of having a safe space, but if you’re going to punish people for not being in the safe space, then it actually becomes sort of an outdoor jail.”
Tibbitts said he’s also skeptical that the enclosed area — which would be managed by the state — has potential as a location of new services.
“I think if you try to cram 500 people into the street area between a half-block, it‘s just going to be elbow to elbow,” Tibbitts said. ”What services would you provide? A dance contest?”
Jonathan Hardy, the Department of Workforce Services’ housing and community development director, said Wednesday that it may feature amenities like hand-washing stations or bicycle storage, as well as some shaded areas.
The director of The Road Home, Matt Minkevitch, had declined to comment on the space before participating on Wednesday’s panel. He said the nonprofit continues to meet with state officials about entrances and emergency exits at the shelter, but he expressed his gratitude that leaders were collaborating to solve the ”vexing” problem of the Rio Grande corridor.
“It‘s going to be bumpy,” Minkevitch said. ”We’re going to make some mistakes. Let’s make some mistakes. Let’s fix them. And let’s continue to improve the trajectory of our efforts to serve our community and the needy.”
Crossroads Executive Director Glenn Bailey invited himself to an Aug. 23 meeting of state officials and service providers and pocketed a draft overview of the ID card program that provides additional detail and stoked Crossroads’ concerns.
As envisioned at that time, the cards would be issued through the Salt Lake County jail, the Salt Lake City Police Department’s Rio Grande-area Community Connection Center, and at the Department of Workforce Services’ office at 720 S. 200 East.
They would include a photo and, “if possible,” fingerprints. Prospective recipients would also have to take a short assessment that is already being administered as part of the treatment phase of Operation Rio Grande, said Nate McDonald, the Department of Workforce Services communication director, though ID cards have yet to be issued.
One big selling point for Hughes in his early contemplation of ID cards is that homeless people often need identification as they seek housing, employment and services. The coordinated services cards, however, would not serve as an official government-issued ID.
Crossroads released a statement later Wednesday in which it warned that the new ID system would ”have the capability of pinging law enforcement databases.”
“Homeless people have civil rights,” it said. ”This seems to be getting lost in the ongoing hysteria that has become Operation Rio Grande. Adding an unconstitutional ID requirement in order to be considered a ‘worthy’ homeless person is moving in the wrong direction.”
Bailey was one of about 50 who attended Wednesday night’s public meeting and came prepared to make a statement, dismayed to learn that participants were asked to write down their comments, which were then selected and read by a moderator.
Lex Scott, the founder of the United Front advocacy group and an organizer for Black Lives Matter, shared Bailey’s frustration: ”I just wanted to look [Biskupski] in the face and say, ’Don’t let [Hughes] bully you. You’re Jackie Biskupski.’”
The ACLU of Utah — which was looped in during some of the planning for Operation Rio Grande but has expressed reservations about the rollout — said in a statement earlier Wednesday that the assessments that will eventually be tied to the ID card process ”may have been initiated without the proper privacy protections in place.”
”Information is being collected, but no cards are being issued, and the information is not connected to any existing service provision databases,” it wrote. ”It is concerning to think that people might be giving up highly personal information ... in exchange for very little in the way of services.”
A copy of the assessment provided to The Salt Lake Tribune by the Department of Workforce Services included questions about health and housing, and for the most part resembles a standard homelessness-services assessment.
Hardy said at the panel discussion that ”certainly we are trying to figure out ways to make sure criminals who are preying upon vulnerable populations are not accessing this area to make it unsafe for them. So we are exploring different options there, but the only barrier to entry is you providing this information on this demographic assessment.”
A notable area in which the assessment seeks more detail than is currently available: the origin of the area’s homelessness-service users.
It asks, ”Where did you live before becoming homeless?” ”In what city did you live when you last had permanent or stable housing?” ”In what state did you live when you last had permanent or stable housing?” ”What was your ZIP code when you last had permanent or stable housing?” and ”If relocated, what was the main reason for selecting SL County?”
Correction: An earlier version of this story included incorrect results from Salt Lake City's online survey, due to a survey error.