Ask anyone who lives or works near Pioneer Park in downtown Salt Lake City and they can tell you - the area has some serious problems. Celia Boyle, who works at SPYHOP at 500 West and 200 South, sees it everyday. "You see people urinating, sleeping, using drugs, you see people buying and selling drugs." And from her desk at SpyHop - Boyle has a front row seat to everything. "I'm looking out the window and you can see people buying drugs all the time." SpyHop is a non-profit organization, which mentors young people in digital arts. Boyle says the behavior outside has a direct impact on what goes on inside."We have parents concerned about dropping off and picking up their kids here."
Those who work just up the road at at Bruges Waffles and Frits, say the problems never stop. "Sometimes there is violence. I have had to call the cops several times." That is what Taysha Murphy told us when we talked to her about the issues. She says sometimes the problems are just around the corner. "There was a stabbing in this parking lot next to us - a homicide." And sometimes it is just outside the front door. "Somebody tried to attack one of our customers with a crutch." Murphy says that kind can spread quickly through social media and hurt business. "One review said the food was great, but 'I won't be coming back because there are issues when you sitting outside.'"
And on an AOL Travel site we found this: "Pioneer Park has earned a dangerous reputation for drug traffic. Despite heavy police patrols...it is still Utah's one-stop drug shop...Pioneer Park ranks as one of Salt Lake City's highest crime areas." We asked Salt Lake Police for a list of one month worth of calls from September 27th to October 27th. Here is what we were told. 99 trespassing calls, 67 drug related calls with 15 involving heroin. There were 24 assaults. And 17 shoplifting calls with 61 total theft calls. There was also a kidnapping call and sadly, an unattended death.
Ema Ostarcevic, who lives downtown and helps run Search Group Partners, is tired of dealing with the issues. And says it is actually worse than some of the big cities she has lived in. "I've lived in downtown Los Angeles and downtown Manhattan and I have never felt the affects of the homeless population and some of the issues at Pioneer Park like I do in Salt Lake City." Ostarcevic is now thinking about moving out of her downtown loft near Pioneer Park. "I want to be comfortable walking my dog at night. I pay good money for where I live, and I want it to feel like home."
You may recall that back in late September Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank promised to deal with the criminal element. At the time he said he would cautions anyone who "engaged in this activity" because "you may be interacting with an undercover police officer." Salt Lake City Police Sargent Michelle Ross says police are keeping that promise. "There has been stepped up enforcement and some operations down here."
Police shared a recent list of citations. A total of 615. That is just in the area around the park and just in one month. But Ross says arrests and citations alone will not really change the situation. "It's difficult because as soon as you get someone housed or off the streets - there is always somebody to take their place." And she says while most people see the homeless as the issue - there is a darker problem - the criminal element mixing in with them. "When you are talking about street level drug dealing, street level robberies and assaults - the bulk of those are people are not homeless. They might live in an apartment or hotel rooms or in a house. They come down here to do business." And Ross, who has worked as a cop in Salt Lake for more than 20 years, says while the homeless do commit crimes - they are more concerned about the criminals who use the homeless to make money. "...the criminals hide among the homeless people. You could almost call it, they are enslaving the people. Because people down here have mental health issues substance abuse issues. They prey on them - they use them."
That is something that Tony Caputo recognizes as well. "There are people with huge problems and it reminds me of what a refugee camp would be like." His popular deli is right across the street from Pioneer Park. He has had to deal with shoplifting and other problems. Yet, he says he loves being in this location. "I really like being across from that park. I like this neighborhood. How bad can it really be? Well, I wouldn't move if I had the chance."
Like everyone else in the area - he would love to get a handle on the situation. But he doesn't see any easy or short term solution. "It's not something one community can solve, I don't think."
Ross says the bottom line is the community has to do more and spend a lot more money if it wants to stop the criminal behavior and cut down the homeless population. "It's drug abuse - it's mental health and you have to have those combined with medical care. If you don't its just a band aid because you have to deal with the underlying issues or you are never going to get these folks out of here. You have to treat the whole problem. Not just piece mail it and arrest them and think you have solved a problem." And she says everyone who comes downtown and gives money to panhandlers needs to understand they are actually contributing to the problem. Ross says don't feel guilty. Instead just give to charities that are feeding and helping the homeless. "We have to educate the public to stop giving money to these individuals. If you want to help give money to the agencies who are getting people out of homelessness. If no one gave out money there would be no pan handlers."
Several agencies are attempting to deal with the homeless issue. The Homeless Outreach Street Team - or HOST. You can email Michelle.Ross@slcgov.com and go to the website to see how to get involved.