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Tackling Salt Lake City's homeless problems will be more efficient if overseen by a nonelected administrator a homeless czar.
That's what House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, is calling for in the wake of continuing problems around downtown's homeless shelter.
"We need someone who is immune from public recoil," he said. "We need some entity with authority, and I think it should come from the state."
Hughes said he has grown frustrated with the scene in the Rio Grande neighborhood around The Road Home and wants action.
But the idea of adding a new official in efforts to improve homeless services at the city, county and state levels got a mixed review Thursday.
Gov. Gary Herbert isn't sure how the czar setup would work, his spokesman said, but he is interested in a short-term solution before the 1,100-bed Road Home shelter is closed by June 30, 2019.
"How we regain the rule of law in that Rio Grande district is a serious question," said Paul Edwards, spokesman for Herbert. "That's why [the governor is] anxious to sit down with the mayors and legislative leaders to work through an appropriate and proportionate response."
Herbert was on the phone Thursday with Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams and Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski and plans to sit down with them and lawmakers to talk about coordinating efforts for quick and visible improvement, Edwards said.
"The nature of what is bringing people into homelessness on such a large scale through addiction raises a lot of challenging questions about how we bridge from today to that long-term solution," Edwards said.
Matthew Rojas, spokesman for Biskupski, said the idea of a czar was a new one, and that the mayor spoke with Hughes on Thursday and welcomed more involvement by the state.
"We could always use help," Rojas said. "We especially can use help in the area of how can we organize all of the parties particularly the nonprofits operating in the area to better be part of the solution."
County officials also wanted more details about the czar.
"We understand how the speaker would look at the situation and think solutions aren't coming fast enough," Alyson Heyrend, spokeswoman for McAdams, said. "But we aren't privy to what he sees as a state homeless czar."
Hughes pitched the idea after a hectic Fourth of July holiday weekend, when a professional baseball player was assaulted in the area and a homeless woman was struck by a car and killed.
"I need someone who can leverage our resources," he said. "We need the independence of this entity so they can do the work that needs to be done."
Hughes pointed to elected officials, such as Draper Mayor Troy Walker, Biskupski and McAdams, who have taken political heat by engaging in the difficult task of trying to improve the conditions of homelessness, as well as making the area safer for residents and businesses.
Most residents don't want the homeless population in their neighborhoods, Hughes said.
"But how do you get to the cure if you can't see the ravages of the disease?" he said. "As a community, we've never rallied on this."
The Road Home, 221 S. Rio Grande St., can accommodate a maximum of 1,100 people. Many others camp outside in the area around Pioneer Park.
The lawlessness and drug use in the area are "a disgrace," Hughes said.
"But the way to get to a good place won't be easy," he conceded, adding that feathers may get ruffled to make meaningful progress.
Rojas said crime was actually down in the Rio Grande area. He said the county's attempts to free up jail beds by contracting with counties willing to accept Salt Lake County inmates last month has benefited the city.
"They ended the conversation talking about how the speaker would appreciate a weekly or monthly report from [Salt Lake City Police] Chief Mike Brown," Rojas said.
McAdams understood why Hughes was speaking out, Heyrend said.
"Mayor McAdams shares Speaker Hughes' frustrations with what's going on in the downtown area," Heyrend said.