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'Worse than Afghanistan': Pioneer Park Coalition members criticize government leaders' homelessness approach

People sit and sleep at Pioneer Park in Salt Lake City on Tuesday. The Pioneer Park Coalition on Tuesday called for immediate action to address the rise in crime and other illegal activities that go on in and around the park.

People sit and sleep at Pioneer Park in Salt Lake City on Tuesday. The Pioneer Park Coalition on Tuesday called for immediate action to address the rise in crime and other illegal activities that go on in and around the park. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Just one week after Salt Lake City's mayor and police chief held a press conference in Pioneer Park saying the city's overall crime trends were headed in a better direction, Pioneer Park Coalition members gathered in the same place to deliver a scathing review of that assessment and the leaders who gave it.

"Our city's mayor and the police chief sit in this exact spot and told us a narrative that crime is going down," said Tyler Clancy, executive director of the Pioneer Park Coalition. "Now the bottom line is this — you can slice and dice the numbers however you want to tell a certain story, but there's clearly a disconnect between city hall and the people who live and work in the Rio Grande Pioneer Park area."

Clancy said that the city's statistics showed violent crime in the Rio Grande-Pioneer Park area was up 52% year over year from the last week of August 2020 to 2021, property crime was up 46% and crimes committed with a weapon were up 92%.

However, a statistics report published today by the Salt Lake City Police Department also indicated that when compared to the 5-year average for the Rio Grande area, overall crime was down 4.3%, property crime was down 4.7% and total violent crime in that same average for the area was down 2%.

In last week's conference, Salt Lake City Police Chief Michael Brown said extra officers had been assigned to areas that need the most attention based on the data being collected such as Pioneer Park. He added that the department has also been involved in an "extensive crime mitigation effort" around the Rio Grande neighborhood.

"We will not let criminal activity go unchecked in our city. To those who say there is lawlessness in Salt Lake City, you are wrong," Brown said in last week's conference.

But the Pioneer Park Coalition, a grassroots group that describes its mission as revitalizing the park and providing solutions to social issues, still described downtown Salt Lake City as a "crisis" and "dire situation" in regards to public safety and homelessness. Members of the coalition, who spoke at the conference on Tuesday, pointed directly at government leaders for the city's decline in public safety.

"These camps look worse than Afghanistan and the management of the crisis is worse than Afghanistan. What city mayor or city council in their right minds would allow these lawless camps to continue to exist? The answer is the Salt Lake City mayor and the Salt Lake City Council," said John Gardiner, a Salt Lake City business owner.

He continued, "Allowing lawless camps in residential and mixed-use neighborhoods is not OK, destroys businesses and residents who have spent decades building many businesses are leaving the city. And it's bad for the homeless population. It is not compassionate, it is not humane. It is simply bad public policy."

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall's spokeswoman Lindsey Nikola issued a statement indicating that Mendenhall's approach has brought leadership both to homelessness and public safety. Nikola pointed to Mendenhall's work with the U.S. attorney, Utah public safety commissioner, and U.S. marshal to help arrest "high-impact criminals," expanding the work of Downtown Ambassadors, increasing pay for first responders and her coordination with Brown on public safety.

"Mayor Mendenhall is a leader who has consistently prioritized the safety of our city's residents, visitors and business owners," Nikola said in a statement.

Many of the speakers' chief concerns were regarding homeless encampments throughout the city. Homeless encampments became front and center as the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the camps seemed to spread across the city. The pandemic presented a unique dilemma for government leaders and public health officials dealing with homelessness.

Shelters reduced capacity to adhere to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines regarding social distancing and attempted to mitigate outbreaks. Some people experiencing homelessness remained on the street for various reasons, some citing fear of the virus. The Pioneer Park Coalition members criticized Mendehnhall's "lack of enforcement" of the city's camping ordinance.

Guidelines released by the CDC for officials regarding homelessness amid COVID-19 advised encampments to be left alone. The CDC reiterated that breaking up encampments could isolate those experiencing homelessness from resource providers who regularly visit those camps and push the virus further into surrounding communities.

"It's a double-edged sword because what do we see in the encampments? We see violence, we see drug overdose, we see other things, there is COVID-19 outbreaks," Clancy said. "We need to have a 24/7, 365 type solution. We can't crisis to crisis to crisis and make excuses."

While the CDC's recommendations are just guidelines, advocated have cited a decision by the 9th Circuit Court, which ruled that cities can't close camps or enforce no-camping laws unless there's adequate shelter available. But former United States Attorney for the District of Utah John Huber pointed to Utah being under the 10th Circuit and argued the camps are still signs of lawlessness.

"There is a swath of lawlessness that exists in the city that is left unaddressed in a meaningful way. Public officials and elected leaders appear to have abdicated their responsibility regarding this pervasive lawless feeling and reality in downtown Salt Lake City," Huber said.

He continued, "We're not advocating for unfair treatment of homeless people. Rather, we're advocating for the equal application of the law... This is a choice to live on the street, to camp on our public property and to create these magnets for crime and lawlessness. There are shelters that the government and private investors have poured a lot of money into and resources right now available to homeless people who are in dire circumstances."

But Mendenhall indicated that for more consistent enforcement of encampment laws, there would need to be an assurance that the system had enough resources and emergency shelter beds to meet the needs of the unsheltered.

Last month, the mayor outlined what she described as four needs to address the increase in unsheltered homelessness:

  • An additional 300 emergency shelter beds, identified by the Salt Lake Valley Coalition To End Homelessness, which should be distributed among neighboring cities in Salt Lake County, not only in Salt Lake City.
  • Because Salt Lake City hosts a majority of the beds in the county, the city must receive dependable, adequate state mitigation funding for public safety, similar to other cities that host overnight homeless services.
  • The Downtown Ambassadors program merits ongoing state funding in addition to the city's mitigation support.
  • The state and county should work to prioritize funding for enhanced behavioral health services until the county receiving center is completed in 2023.

Mendenhall has consistently called on other cities throughout the state to help meet the growing demand, saying that Salt Lake City has contributed considerably more than its fair share to addressing the statewide crisis.

"Salt Lake City represents only 17% of the population of Salt Lake County, but expansion of bed capacity in the countywide homeless services system seems to be predominantly focused here. New emergency shelter beds must also come online in jurisdictions throughout the county to better balance the system," Mendenhall said in a statement regarding the potential shelter in the Ballpark neighborhood.

Despite the criticism of the mayor during the conference, Huber seemed to agree with the sentiment.

"We call upon the governor to dedicate resources to this capital city; the rest of the state cannot remain in a pristine state while our capital city deteriorates. We call upon all these officials to do what they like to say is 'the Utah way,' to come together, throw down their egos and their territorialism and come together and make a difference in a city that is crying out for assistance," Huber said.

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