This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Walk the streets around Pioneer Park, or near the Road Home homeless shelter, or around the edges of The Gateway don't drive past, walk through and you'll see a population in crisis.
Actually, no. Crisis is too light of a word. You'll notice a population dying on the streets, right in front of your eyes. And you won't have to work too hard to see it.
You'll see the people struggling to walk taking floating, tentative steps, like they don't know where to put their next step. They make their way down the sidewalks this way, unsure of how to do it seemingly, struggling in the heat, bodies contorted in pain, headed for shade. Who knows why they walk this way. Late stage, untreated illnesses? The rigors of a life spent sleeping on pavement? Drug use? Booze? It doesn't matter, does it, when you see a human being struggling to simply walk down the street?
You'll see people nodding out falling asleep in slow motion on their feet in broad daylight, arms limp, eyes closed, heads rocking back and forth, as they crumple to the ground and curl into a limp heap, succumbing to the sickly sweet bite of heroin. You don't have to wait for nighttime to see this. This happens in the middle of the day with people walking by on their way to work or lunch, past these slowly dying people on the periphery, passed out on the street or fighting withdrawal, vomiting on the sidewalks or in bus shelters.
If you don't turn back, if you make it to the Rio Grande station which is ground zero for all of this death and suffering in our midst, you'll see open drug deals and more bodies, people sleeping or passed out. You'll hear screams echoing from the park, people either fighting each other or their own mental illness. It'll feel like you're somewhere else when you're here; not Salt Lake City, but Los Angeles or some desperately wrong turn in New York City. But it's here, all right. And it's happening every day.
We like to tell stories about these people. We like to tell our friends that these people are secretly rich, that at the end of the day they go home to houses like our own. But they don't, at least most of them. Take the walk I just described and ask yourself if it's true that many (or any) of these people are secretly well-off.
We like to tell stories that these people are just con artists or that they're rude or crazy. And all of that may be true. But what's more important and true is this: They're dying out there. Plain and simple, they're dying in the middle of Salt Lake City in broad daylight shooting each other, overdosing, dying of heatstroke and having heart attacks.
So, let's stop telling stories about it. Let's stop driving past it all with our windows up. Take a walk in downtown Salt Lake City and see if you can't come up with a way to keep just one of these people on the streets alive for another day.
Joe Bartenhagen is a writer and filmmaker who lives and works in downtown Salt Lake City.