Commentary: The ‘leaf blower effect’ spreads the problems of homelessness
(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A spent needle lies on the ground near 800 W. North Temple as members of the Utah Harm Reduction Coalition comb the neighborhood picking them up during a recent syringe exchange. The dispersal of people who are homeless from downtown because of Operation Rio Grande has made it harder for those who run the needle exchanges to find those who need them and vice versa.
I don’t begrudge the residents and businesses near Rio Grande who have seen improvements to their neighborhood after years of complaining about the drugs, human waste and safety concerns caused by the large homeless population. We all deserve to feel safe in our communities.
Unfortunately for those of us living in neighborhoods just outside downtown, we have inherited the very problems others fought so hard to eliminate. I understood it best when it was referred to as the “leaf blower” effect. Basically, to show progress in one area of the city, our elected officials have blown the problems associated with the homeless into other areas of the city and into our neighborhoods.
Citizens in our neighborhoods are scared and bewildered by our newfound guests. Once-quiet streets where children could play now have drug addicts and the mentally unstable. The real effects of mental illness, drug markets and illegal behavior are now in our front yards. Those components used to be centralized in the Rio Grande area, where many of the professionals trained to address those activities are. In a rush to show progress, our elected leaders provided little if any warning of what was to come and ignored residents’ concerns about constructing new homeless shelters in our neighborhoods.
A young family in one of our neighborhoods recently learned the impact of leaf blowing. They finished building their dream home after many years of saving. They found a building lot on what was a quiet street. Unfortunately, the leaf blowing occurred during their building process. Shortly after the family moved in, the young wife was preparing food in the kitchen only to look up and find a homeless man pressed against her front window, begging her to let him into her house. Although clearly shaken, she determined that it was a one-time occurrence. A couple of days later, her neighbors screaming and pounding on her door startled the same woman. As she ran outside to see what was happening, a homeless man was escaping around the corner. Her neighbors relayed to her that the man was in her window well prying on her basement window, the window of her children’s playroom.
When citizens complain to their elected leaders, they are told, “Trust us, progress is being made.” This sadly seems to be a recurring theme in Salt Lake County on a variety of issues. The voice of the people is ignored on important issues and we are supposed to trust in the wisdom of our leaders. This is not how our government should be run.
There seems to be no real gauge to determine if progress is occurring regarding the homeless. To many, the “trust us” statements offer little assurance. Residents feel as though their concerns and opinions made little difference and that there was not enough public engagement during the decision process.
Instead of a somewhat contained problem, we now have a much more scattered problem as seen with the spike in lawlessness near North Temple and elsewhere.
Nobody wants to see the homeless or anyone else suffer, but people are scared. They fear for the safety of their children and spouse, they fear for their home values and they fear that their neighborhoods are changed forever.
Important decisions that will have such a long-lasting impact must be more carefully considered and include more input from the community. A few politicians should not make all the decisions. Voters need to send a message that there are consequences for ignoring the voice of the people and that their local representatives need to stand up for the needs of their communities.
Robert Edgel is the Republican candidate for the Utah House of Representatives in District 35 (South Salt Lake, Murray and Millcreek).