This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
All afternoon and evening, cars pull up to the curb near 500 West and 200 South. Someone hustles up to the idling vehicle, an exchange is made and the car zooms away.
Welcome to Salt Lake City's drive-through drug market, operating out in the open every day, year in and year out. The gritty Rio Grande District near the Road Home shelter is ground zero for Utah's "War on drugs."
It's no accident that drugs are peddled around the shelter. Dealers dress to blend in among the homeless, who are waiting along the sidewalks for a warm bed or a meal.
Despite upbeat national publicity surrounding Salt Lake City's success reducing chronic homelessness, the Rio Grande area remains in crisis.
Many drug dealers there have direct ties to strong-arm Honduran and Mexican drug cartels, said Fred Ross, deputy chief of police. One by one, young, Latino dealers are arrested without making a dent in the Rio Grande area drug traffic. For every arrest made, another dealer has been hustled across the border and is ready to fill in.
"We cannot arrest our way out of this," Ross said.
Of course, some homeless people are drug users and addicts. But most of the cocaine and heroin trafficked in the Rio Grande neighborhood is purchased by Wasatch Front residents who drive from as far away as Ogden or Provo to make a score near the homeless shelter, Ross said.
That was illustrated all too well Dec. 19, when a drug dealer was shot and killed at 563 W. 200 South. The suspects in the homicide are Austin James Herring, 29, Bluffdale, and Richard Michael Warner, 31, West Valley City.
The shooting took place at 4:30 p.m. on the doorstep of Thomas Electric. A block and a half away, Christmas shoppers were plying the walks and shops at The Gateway mall.
Proprietor Richard Thomas and other business people and residents in the area are frustrated and angry because the trafficking has gone on for years with no letup.
"The criminal population and the homeless population are joined at the hip," Thomas said. "Somebody needs to have the courage to say the Rio Grande neighborhood will be blighted until the homeless shelter is moved."
No 'silver bullet' • The Pioneer Park Coaliton, an organization of about 200 people from the public and private sectors, wants the place cleaned up, too. One of its planned strategies was to analyze the efforts of the various homeless providers and determine whether the shelter and St. Vincent de Paul soup kitchen should be moved.
With the coalition's voice growing louder, Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker announced last month the formation of a commission that would do just that. Some members of the Pioneer Park Coaltion have been appointed to Becker's group that numbers about two dozen.
The Salt Lake City Police Department has ratcheted up its efforts to tamp down drug trafficking in the district during the past year. According to police statistics, 1,144 drug-related arrests were made in the district from Jan. 1 to Nov. 30, 2014. That compares to 403 drug-related arrests in all of 2013.
But residents and business owners in the neighborhood say drug trafficking is as bad as ever. And many don't feel safe.
"We have adapted our work hours so that there are always two people here when we close at 5 p.m.," said Sheryl Gillilan, executive director of Art Access, located at 230 S. 500 West.
"It's not the homeless people who are the issue," she said. "It's the people who sell the drugs and the people out in the community that come here to buy the drugs."
The area around Pioneer Park has long been seen as the underbelly of Salt Lake City, dating back 50 years or more to the days when 200 South west of Rio Grande Street served as the town's red-light district. Little by little, however, the city has grown westward and the neighborhood is on the verge of a renaissance with new housing projects and commercial and retail developments in the planning stages.
But drug dealing and violence could stand in the way of the area emerging as a new and vibrant neighborhood, said Jason Mathis, executive director of the Downtown Alliance business group.
"There is not one silver bullet" to end drug dealing in the area, he noted.
But he pointed to the success of a pilot program funded by the City Council that put four additional police officers on the streets near the shelter from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. The project that lasted for two weeks during the holiday shopping season made a significant difference, Mathis said.
"If the neighborhood isn't safe for homeless people, residents or business people, then we need to look for other solutions and more resources," he said.
More police officers in the area may be helpful in the short term but shouldn't come at the cost of safety in other neighborhoods, said Luke Garrott, chairman of the City Council.
And he noted the failure of the so-called "War on Drugs."
"It is not only expensive to fight the drug war in the traditional way," Garrott said, "but it has been shown not to work."