This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
In a recent story in The Tribune ("Business among Salt Lake City's homeless ... " Oct. 23), Courtney Tanner reported on Pete Henderson, who owns and operates the Rio Grande Cafe at 270 S. Rio Grande Street. Henderson and his restaurant have been a fixture and welcoming anchor in the area for most of the last 35 years. He has watched as the area surrounding the Road Home shelter has become worse every year. His frustration at the situation is representative of the businesses in the area.
The original idea of the Road Home Shelter was to provide space for less than 200 people. Utah's Justice Reinvestment Act (JRA) recently decreased the penalties for many drug crimes to misdemeanors with the expectation that addicts would get treatment. In Salt Lake County, the jail was overwhelmed with a 209 percent increase in misdemeanors. The Salt Lake County Jail is so overcrowded that the police have a phone app that has to be checked to determine if the person that they want to arrest can be taken to jail! The county jail will now only take felony arrests.
The sheriff recently asked for $6.7 million to open up more jail beds but the new proposed budget in Salt Lake County does not budget for more jail beds. Without a health care expansion program like Healthy Utah, addicts do not get treatment. The result is that those who are stealing to get drugs are left on the street and they gravitate to the Rio Grande area where drug dealers operate openly. Even drug dealers are in jail for only a few hours due to jail overcrowding.
The lack of cooperation, communication and coordination between the Salt Lake City mayor and the City Council is creating problems with solutions. If the four homeless expansion sites are agreed to by the council and the public (which will not be given a choice since the plan at present is to list the final four for public comment), they will not be available for three years and will only provide beds for 550 homeless. That is not enough to empty and move the Road Home, which usually sleeps a thousand. That fact is enough to discourage the rest of the businesses in the area from staying.
Salt Lake City says that the millions that are planned for art, Pioneer Park rejuvenation, an open air market and infrastructure to facilitate high density development in the Rio Grande area will create an inviting neighborhood within three years. But when people are crapping on the sidewalk, spending millions on art and amenities is useless. When addicts shoot up in the park, spending millions on park facilities is a waste of money. When people are lining the streets camping out, spending hundreds of millions on pretty buildings will not create a great neighborhood.
The businesses in the Rio Grande area are faced with increasingly violent drug addicts and people who need mental health treatment. Three years is too long to wait for solutions. The best hope is an immediate increase in Salt Lake County jail space along with full funding of the Justice Reinvestment Act or health care expansion. Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams said that his new proposed budget (released this week) "delivers on public safety," but the sheriff admitted that there needs to be an increase in jail beds and taxes will need to go up next year.
We shouldn't wait until Pete Henderson gives up and closes the Rio Grande Café. McAdams and the County Council should provide funding now for law enforcement to do their job and arrest criminals and drug dealers and open up more jail beds. The Salt Lake City mayor and council should work together now to open up a temporary shelter to get most, if not all, homeless off the streets and sidewalks and out of the parks. And the Utah Legislature should provide funding for the implementation of the JRA which saddled local governments with unfunded mandates.
If we lose Pete Henderson, we lose the battle.
George Chapman is a former candidate for mayor of Salt Lake City.