State leaders promise to crack down on ‘deplorable’ chaos in downtown Salt Lake City

In light of two murders in 18 hours in the Rio Grande area of Salt Lake City, top state, city and county officials met with Gov. Gary Herbert in the Capitol Wednesday to lay out an enhanced plan to deal with the city’s homeless problems – especially the drug dealing and overall violence.

Herbert said Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox will be the state “point man” – he doesn’t like the term “czar” – on the homeless issue and the recent violence in the area around Pioneer Park and the Rio Grande homeless service providers.

Cox and others at the press conference said the lawlessness in the area – from public defecating to drug dealing to assaults – will stop immediately.

That will take more cops, said Herbert, and the state will support that in ways the leaders declined to detail.

It must be said that the closed meeting, which included Salt Lake Mayor Jackie Biskupski and Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, Attorney General Sean Reyes and other state, county and city leaders, as well as local DEA agents, was at times difficult, or at least candid, several who attended told UtahPolicy later.

And when the various leaders walked into the press conference (more than an hour late), none were smiling.

House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, who has been especially vocal in his displeasure at what is happening in the Rio Grande area, several times hugged Biskupski, who also did not seem happy with the neighborhood situation.

Biskupski said things will improve in the area, but that many of the issues will take time to solve.

Hughes, whose apartment owning/management firm has its main office on 2nd West around 9th South, has opened another small office at the south end of the Gateway complex, and said he plans on holding meetings at the site to keep an eye on the main homeless center across the street – and those who frequent the area.

Hughes said no one is to blame for the current situation – which several leaders said was “deplorable.”

And while that may be the case, Hughes later told UtahPolicy that all political leaders, including himself, would not step away from the Rio Grande concerns.

In speaking to the press, Hughes said the heat will be turned up.

And Cox said it would be a good time for drug dealers and others harming the area to get out of the city and Utah.

Herbert, Hughes and others said they would not detail the enhanced law enforcement efforts, adding that the whole process starts with finding new jail beds and new treatment beds for the addicted and mentally ill.

There is no question that Hughes has been driving the issue, with help from Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy.

But with Herbert meeting Wednesday, and the picking of Cox, it appears the governor and his executive branch will take on an enhanced position.

The meeting was set some time ago. Still, one homeless man was killed near The Road Home homeless shelter on Tuesday, bashed in the head in an apparent random attack that left several others injured.

Early Wednesday morning, another man was shot to death, and left dead on a sidewalk in Pioneer Park, about a block away from the shelter.

A person has been arrested in the Tuesday incident, but no one yet in Wednesday killing.

Violence and drug dealing has worsened around the area, where the homeless have gathered for years.

The state has promised more than $27 million toward solving the homeless issue in downtown Salt Lake.

Hughes raised eyebrows several weeks ago when he told the media Herbert should consider calling out the National Guard, or at least appointing a state “czar” to oversee and coordinate all homeless issues and budgets.

Hughes comments came after a minor league baseball player from Nevada was attacked by a tire-iron wielding homeless person, severely injuring him, and a homeless woman/drug offender ran a car into a group of homeless people walking on a sidewalk in the area, killing one, injuring others.

Herbert said Wednesday that he will not call out the National Guard. Likewise, the governor said Cox will be not called the homeless “czar,” but will coordinate all efforts to deal with the problems, with the feds, state, city and county.

Meanwhile, Tuesday afternoon, legislative budgeters gave a “yellow” status to the Legislature’s funding/program enhancements for its homeless efforts – with analysts saying out of more than $6 million allocated by the state less than $2 million has been spent so far.

Any number of lawmakers – led by Hughes – have expressed frustration at the pace of dealing with the homeless issue.

At one time, state officials pointed fingers at Biskupski and McAdams, both Democrats, for the holdups in picking new homeless shelters (“centers” is the new correct reference) both in the city and in the county.

Hughes pointed out Wednesday that there are, and won’t be, any Republicans or Democrats in the solution, but a unified, multi-agency bipartisan solution.

Those sites have now been picked, and by June 2019, still two years away, The Road Home will be closed, and homeless folks moved to the new shelters or into temporary housing in local low-cost motels.

Homeless single men – the most difficult group to deal with – will be housed in a new shelter at about 1000 West and 3300 South, in a mostly industrial area.