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SALT LAKE CITY — Amid unrelenting public frustrations over the chaotic conditions surrounding the downtown homeless shelter, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski came before the Salt Lake County Council on Tuesday to highlight all the money and effort her city is spending to improve the area.
Her message: "Please stick with us," because a solution isn't going to come overnight.
"We have two years ahead of us that will still remain very challenging," she said, explaining that the county and city still has a long road to go before the Road Home's downtown shelter closes in 2019 and the new homeless resource centers open.
In the meantime, she said, her team is working to continue ramping up new tools that are "desperately needed" to holistically tackle homelessness problems — from creating more affordable housing to finding new addiction and mental health treatment resources.
"It's important to keep this in mind — the issues we are dealing with have gone on for decades and over the last 10 years have really spiraled out of control," Biskupski told the council. "It's easy to get frustrated with the process, especially as we are inundated with stories in the newspapers about the chaos and lawlessness, but it says so much more that no one has wavered or walked away from the table."
"Rather than throw our hands up," the mayor added, "we've collectively doubled down on our efforts to implement plans that are vetted, funded and are working."
The mayor and her team spent more than an hour detailing ongoing and upcoming efforts to improve conditions in the neighborhood. The city has committed more than $10 million in funding, much of which is going directly to the city's Community Connection Center and other homeless providers to "meet critical needs as we transition to the new resource center model," the mayor said.
Rather than throw our hands up, we've collectively doubled down on our efforts to implement plans that are vetted, funded and are working.
–Mayor Jackie Biskupski
"I know that a lot of money is going into this neighborhood, but as you can see there is a lot of activity, and once we close The Road home and we break this population up ... I think you will see a different picture," Biskupski said. "I'm confident of that or I wouldn't be making all these decisions and taking all the heat for them."
500 West median redesign
Biskupski's deputy chief of staff, David Litvack, and deputy police chief Josh Scharman explained in detail the city's plans to redesign the 500 West median into a "secure, fenced" parking lot with a gate and install more security cameras and brighter street lighting.
Mike Reberg, director of Salt Lake City's Department of Community and Neighborhoods, said the city plans to find a contractor to redesign the 500 West median in "the next couple of weeks" and have construction underway by mid-August.
Reberg added that next week there will be "temporary construction fencing" installed around the median to begin the project.
Scharman also said violent crimes have decreased about 6 percent in the Rio Grande area over the past year, while the "community crimes" — trespassing, public intoxication or urination — have actually seen a slight rise because of increased enforcement and reporting.
Biskupski said Salt Lake County's recent lifting of jail restrictions has been a "game changer" and has helped her city's police officers discourage illegal behaviors in the area. Those behavior patterns, however, will take time to change as people begin to realize police are able to arrest more suspects, Scharman said.
When County Councilman Richard Snelgrove asked Biskupski what the county can be doing better to help, Biskupski said "everything comes down to (jail and treatment) beds," requesting that the County Council look for ways to use more funding for "treatment, mental health care and justice."
Councilman Jim Bradley, however, said the county simply doesn't have the money "right now to build the resources we need in this community. We need more help from the state."
Biskupski then suggested that perhaps there are more service providers out there that the county could contract with to increase resources, such as mental health or drug treatment.
'Everything is money'
Bottom line, Biskupski said, the issue always "comes down to funding."
"Everything is money," she said. "There's just not enough. There are needs all over the city. I have certainly prioritized funding in this neighborhood unlike any other mayor has, but at the end of the day, you can't arrest your way out. You've got to have the housing to transition people, we've got to have living wages so people don't become homeless to begin with, we've got to look at Medicaid expansion."
Earlier this month, House Speaker Greg Hughes and Gov. Gary Herbert expressed interest in collaborating with Biskupski and the county to come up with more short-term solutions for the Rio Grande area.
That meeting is scheduled to happen July 26, according to Herbert's staff.