Improvements in, around Pioneer Park a work in progress, Salt Lake mayor says

By Marjorie Cortez, Deseret News

Published: Tue, Aug. 12, 2014, 7:15 p.m. MDT

 Rachel Wilkerson arranges fruit for sale at Pioneer Park in Salt Lake City Tuesday, Aug. 12, 2014. Community leaders updated the public on what the city and service providers are doing to address the challenges facing Pioneer Park and the Rio Grande neighborhood.

Rachel Wilkerson arranges fruit for sale at Pioneer Park in Salt Lake City Tuesday, Aug. 12, 2014. Community leaders updated the public on what the city and service providers are doing to address the challenges facing Pioneer Park and the Rio Grande neighborhood.

(Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — The Salt Lake City Police Department's newly constituted Metro Support Bureau near Pioneer Park made 423 arrests between July 6 and Aug. 7.

More than half of the arrests were drug- and alcohol-related.

While that represents progress, Salt Lake Police Chief Chris Burbank said conditions in the Pioneer Park neighborhood are complex, and arrests alone will not improve conditions in the area.

"If we are beating everything in the area with a police stick, which is simply jail, then we're doing a disservice to this community and all members of this community," Burbank said at a news conference Tuesday afternoon outside the bureau, 420 W. 200 South.

"We are better served when we consider alternatives to incarceration, when we look at individuals and say, 'What is your problem and how can we solve it so that we don't have to deal with it tomorrow?'"

For some people, that might be a substance use disorder or a mental illness. Others may have physical illnesses and no access to care. And others may need housing, he said.

"Is it simply just a meal for the day? Do they have warrants that are outstanding? How can we resolve those so once again it's not a drain on the criminal justice system?" Burbank said.

While the Metro Support Bureau is committed to fighting crime and arresting those who prey on people who live and work in the area, Burbank said his long-term vision is a bureau that addresses the needs of the entire neighborhood without bias, prejudice, and that "meets all of their needs so we have an environment that people can enjoy coming to and from this area."

Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker said efforts to improve Pioneer Park and the Depot District have been underway for six years.

"We made great progress, and all of a sudden, 18 months ago, the conditions took a turn for the worse in terms of criminal activity, in terms of people feeling unwelcome in this neighborhood. We all have very different roles to play in working on this issue, and fortunately for us in Salt Lake City, we've been very successful by working together, playing to each of our strengths in helping to reduce homelessness," Becker said.

From first lady Michelle Obama to newly appointed Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro, the nation has taken notice of the city's progress in housing veterans and others who have been chronically homeless, he said.

"We, with Phoenix, were the first city in the country to effectively end homelessness among our veterans, and we've been on a 10-year goal, which would come to completion in 2015-2016, to end homelessness for our chronically homeless. We, of course, still have a long way to go," Becker said.

Another new initiative has been the launch of a Street Engagement Team, funded through a $200,000 grant from the inaugural Salt Lake County Council of Government's Homeless Services Fund. The grant was funded by contributions from cities in Salt Lake County and the county itself.

"Right now, we've been able to hire those four staff, get them trained and out on the street looking for folks in this area. We've begun outreach efforts with this vulnerable audience," said Rob Wesemann, homeless services division director for Volunteers of America — Utah.

The team combines the resources of Volunteers of America, The Road Home and Fourth Street Clinic to step up outreach efforts in the Pioneer Park neighborhood.

Elizabeth Buehler, Salt Lake City's homeless services coordinator, unveiled the city's roadmap for the next 18 months, which includes housing 20 of the city's top consumers of homeless services, building 300 units of housing for homeless individuals and families through government and private partnerships, expanding day services for homeless people; studying the locations of homeless services providers, working closely with criminal justice partners to improve public safety, and providing more activities in Pioneer Park.

"We can only accomplish this by working with all our service partners, our providers, government agencies, our business partners like Downtown Alliance and Pioneer Park Coalition. If we all work together on this, we think we can better the lives of individuals but also the neighborhood," Buehler said.

Josh Romney, finance chairman of the Pioneer Park Coalition, said the coalition's goal is to bring together many voices and interests to "create a comprehensive solution that will really change downtown Salt Lake."

Housing for homeless individuals is key component of that solution, he said.

"We looked at case studies all across the country and what we found was by providing the homeless with housing, it allows them to recover from their addictions, their illnesses, whatever it is that has caused them to be on the streets. Putting them under a roof, first and foremost, allows them to take that next step," Romney said.

Pioneer Park Coalition Chairman Scott Howell said one of the group's goals has been to make Pioneer Park family friendly 24/7, keeping in mind the needs of "our brothers and sisters" beginning with housing.

"What we hope to do is create a footprint for the homeless that will show the rest of the world what we know and we want to work with this to make better lives for everyone," Howell said.

Email: marjorie@deseretnews.com

1. Blue
Salt Lake City, UT,
Aug. 13, 2014

The bums and drug dealers have simply moved to the Gateway.

2. TheAtheist
Aug. 13, 2014

That is a lot of arrest. I wonder was percent of them were in need on mental health or housing services. It's unfortunate that we as a society turn our head away from rehabilitation and to arrest/jailing.