While talking with Salt Lake City’s mayor on Thursday, House Speaker Greg Hughes didn’t mention deploying troops, nor did he use the word “czar” to describe a hypothetical state official who would take over efforts to combat homelessness.
“My conversation with him was not like what was in the press,” said Jackie Biskupski on Friday. “He just wants to make sure we’re successful.”
But Hughes’ recent depiction of the area surrounding the 1,100-bed shelter at 210 S. Rio Grande St. — as a spiraling hellscape — highlighted conflicting narratives and left some to wonder what Hughes had meant when he called for more drastic measures.
If not the National Guard, then what?
“I’m not entirely sure what I mean,” Hughes said he told Biskupski when the mayor sought specifics.
Hughes said his belief that more aggressive action is needed results not only from two nationally publicized incidents involving the city’s homeless — the alleged assault of a visiting minor league baseball player and a fatal auto-pedestrian collision — but also from talks with law enforcement officials and an undisclosed “community group.”
Hughes and Senate President Wayne Niederhauser met recently with members of the Pioneer Park Coalition, a group of area developers, business owners and residents who have long sought the closure of the Rio Grande St. shelter. It’s not clear if that’s the same group Hughes referenced.
The Draper Republican is the most prominent legislative champion for a collaboration among the state, city and county to better coordinate homeless services and build smaller, scattered shelters to replace the much-maligned downtown facility. He now thinks lawbreaking is worsening, with hard-won legislative funding at stake.
Said Hughes: “I can’t go back to them next year and say, ‘You know everything we did? It’s all worse. How about that?’”
Salt Lake City’s preliminary data, on the contrary, show a 6 percent decrease in year-to-date Part I offenses (homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, theft and arson) in the Rio Grande district, defined as North Temple to 700 South and State Street to Interstate 15.
Salt Lake City police Chief Mike Brown said Friday that he had witnessed additional improvement in the 24 hours since the Salt Lake County jail lifted booking restrictions that prevented his officers from enforcing ordinances against loitering and camping.
Following a Thursday cleanup by the county Health Department, Brown said, “I was down there today, and I did not see one tent.”
The city plans to install brighter lights, cameras and attended restrooms in the area, while the county has encouraged the city to impede drug traffic by closing Rio Grande St. or converting it and 500 West into one-way streets heading the same direction. The county also petitioned the state to relocate its 205 W. 400 South liquor store.
Hughes made his remarks as state funding was being used to remove all families from the downtown shelter by mid-July, and days after he joined federal agents and Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes as Reyes touted a “huge takedown” that had “eradicated an entire network” of heroin and cocaine dealers near the shelter.
But Hughes said Friday that the city’s crime numbers are “counterintuitive” given the “urban chaos” and conspicuous drug exchanges he observed on recent visits to the area with his staff and Brown.
He was alarmed, he said, that when county officials power-washed the “filthy and black” sidewalk in front of Catholic Community Services’ facilities on the east side of Rio Grande St., they had to capture the water before it went into the gutter.
“It’s a public health hazard,” he said.
Hughes said he received an email from “a popular destination in that area” that wants to hire armed security guards.
Scott Howell, a former state senator, said he and area property owner and fellow Pioneer Park Coalition representative Tiffanie Provost had “a great conversation” with Hughes and Niederhauser. Their message: “Everything is getting worse.”
“From the drug trade, the prostitution, to the immoral behavior, the defecation — every single thing is getting worse in the Rio Grande area,” Howell said.
Hughes said he doesn’t dispute the accounts he’s heard, including those of Drug Enforcement Administration.
“I don’t think it’s anecdotal,” Hughes said, “because I think you can drive there right now and see things that you shouldn’t be able to see.”
Hughes has said that he only mentioned sending in the National Guard to demonstrate that it was possible to discuss the action with a straight face — such is the severity of criminal activity. But he’s serious about installing a new state official. (He hesitates to use the word “czar,” he said, “because we’ve got this whole Russian conversation going on.”)
A nonelected official could make the tough decisions necessary to curb violence and drug use near the shelter, Hughes said, without taking the political damage that Biskupski and Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams endured in selecting new shelter sites and committing to the July 2019 closure of the Rio Grande St. shelter.
“None of it is going to be popular,” Hughes said. “You can’t ‘hug-a-thug’ your way out of this. You’re going to have to process criminals.”
No short-term vision for the area has gone as far as the 21-point plan unveiled in April by outbound county Sheriff Jim Winder.
Winder, who became Moab’s new police chief earlier this month, proposed an 80 percent reduction in shelter beds by June and the creation of a homeless encampment at the corner of 100 South and 600 West. Lauded by the Pioneer Park Coalition and panned by a local service provider as draconian and far-fetched, it was hardly mentioned by those with the power to enact the changes.
Hughes said Friday that he doesn’t necessarily support an encampment but that he has yet to hear worthy alternatives from Winder’s critics.
“Thank you, Sheriff Winder, for stepping into a space where you get nothing but punished,” Hughes said. “To the people who disagree: Don’t just tell me what won’t work. Give me a plan.”
As an example of unexplored options, Hughes pointed to Honolulu’s crackdown on loitering and camping, which has led to a reported reduction of homeless people in tourist districts.
Such prohibitions are on the rise nationwide, according to a report from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP) and have met constitutional challenges from civil rights groups. NLCHP enshrined Honolulu in its “Hall of Shame” for having issued more than 16,000 warnings and 500 summonses since it passed stricter laws in 2014.
But many who congregate outside the shelter already are violating Salt Lake City ordinances. Utah’s capital is among a third of 187 cities surveyed by NLCHP that prohibits camping in public or loitering citywide, 39 percent that prohibit living in vehicles, and 18 percent that prohibit sleeping in public.
Jail booking restrictions had tied officers’ hands, Brown said. He’s seen body-camera footage in which offenders brazenly crumpled up and threw away a new citation. The ability to now book those offenders is “a game-changer for us,” he said.
“We’re able to take them to jail and kind of put a stop to some of this bad behavior and hopefully get them into some sort of treatment program,” Brown said.
Hughes has asked Brown for regular updates, and on Friday the speaker credited Biskupski and McAdams — who declined to comment for this story — for seeming to trust his intentions. He plans to spend more time near the shelter to gain a better understanding of the area’s challenges, he said.
Biskupski said the speaker has “spent a lot of political capital on this” and that she welcomes further discussion.
She cautioned him, though, that the city has “been vetting everything coming our way, and there are just civil rights for people to be in public space, and there’s not much you can do about that.”