Ballpark community residents blame Operation Rio Grande, an all-out attack on homelessness and illegal activity in the Pioneer Park area downtown, for pushing a drug problem into their neighborhoods.
Yet many remain open to the arrival earlier this month of a homeless resource center at 242 West Paramount Avenue, believing the shelter and its services will offer a boost to people who are looking for a way off the streets.
"All the criminal activity that goes on around here is not done by those people who are trying to get help," said Eric Uquillas, who's lived in the neighborhood for about 16 years.
Uquillas and his wife live a few blocks away from the Gail Miller Resource Center, a 200-bed men’s and women’s facility that is part of a broad overhaul in homeless services across the Salt Lake Valley. While the Rio Grande area has historically acted as a hub for the region’s homeless population, the new model relies on three smaller dispersed resource centers where individuals can access everything from meals to basic health care.
The shift began earlier this summer with the opening of a new women’s facility at 131 E. 700 South and continued this month as clients began moving into the Miller shelter on Paramount Avenue. A men’s resource center in South Salt Lake is scheduled to come on line in November, after which providers will complete the transition by closing the The Road Home’s downtown shelter that has operated for decades in the Rio Grande neighborhood.
Resource center leaders were on hand at a recent community anti-violence forum held at the Horizonte Instruction and Training Center and hosted by the Ballpark and Central Ninth community councils in response to a recent string of murders in the neighborhood.
The meeting centered mostly around the unsheltered homeless, with several residents expressing concern about the dispersal of that population into their neighborhood following the Operation Rio Grande crackdown.
Ballpark resident Chris Derbidge, for example, said he feels he has to walk his teenage daughter, Katelyn, to her school bus every morning because of encampments and “drug deals happening left and right” on their route.
Katelyn, 14, said she doesn’t feel safe because of a group of people “who are homeless because they use their money on drugs or alcohol. And those are the ones that don’t go to the shelters because they don’t let them do that there.”
In an effort to improve safety, residents have asked for a number of policy changes and action items from the mayor’s office, including a change to the demolition ordinance to address the high number of abandoned buildings in the community. They also want additional lighting and for the city to implement loitering- and camping-resistant landscapes on park strips.
“We’re not heartless,” Ballpark Community Council Chairwoman Amy Hawkins said at the forum. “I don’t want people to not be able to live their lives. But there are certain places in the city where the camps have been a distinct crime magnet.”
Matthew Melville, homeless services director for Catholic Community Services, which is operating the Gail Miller site, said his organization is supportive of the measures requested by residents. He would also like to see improved sidewalks and protected bike lanes to make it safer for those who may be accessing the shelter.
And far from adding to crime in their neighborhood, he hopes the new resource center and model for delivering homeless services will offer help to those who have previously not sought out shelter.
“We would like to encourage those people to come on inside, give this place a shot,” he said.
Police are quick to point out that crime is down across the city and that none of the four homicides in the Ballpark area over the one-year period beginning last July had any connection to homelessness.
“Could you say that there are some problems in those neighborhoods in the Ballpark neighborhood? Yes,” Salt Lake City Police Detective Greg Wilking said in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune. “Do I think it’s a result of homelessness? No. Do I think crime is up in those areas? No, I don’t think so. If you compare the crime statistics from four years ago to now, it was a much worse area. It’s gotten better. But there’s the focus suddenly because of these homicides that are not connected.”
For his part, Uquillas said he believes the homicides are linked to rising drug activity in the neighborhood. Operation Rio Grande has simply shifted the problem into the area around Smith’s Ballpark, he argues.
"This is the new Rio Grande," said Uquillas, who with his wife started a loosely-organized neighborhood association.
But he draws a distinction between these drug-addicted individuals and the people who will be seeking help at the Gail Miller center, a facility that is expected to serve 160 men and 40 women. By and large, the shelter’s clients are homeless because of a “bad turn of luck,” he believes, and are looking for a fresh start.
While some communities try to keep homeless shelters out of their neighborhoods, Uquillas said Ballpark residents have generally welcomed the Gail Miller Resource Center.
“Our community is like, ‘Alright. Let’s give these guys a chance,’” he said.
Business owners near the Geraldine E. King Women’s Resource Center near State Street on 700 South have also expressed support for the resource center in their area.
Melville said Catholic Community Services has been engaged with residents in the Ballpark community since the site was announced and expects that will continue.
“We all want to see this succeed,” he said, “and I think their concerns are our concerns about safety.”