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How did Salt Lake City’s homeless district get so bad and why can’t we fix it?

The area around Pioneer Park and Rio Grande Street’s homeless shelter has long been a place to score illegal drugs. Crack cocaine, methamphetamine and alcohol were the substances of choice until about 2013 or ’14. Then heroin swept in and amped up everything.

It’s no longer a drug deal here and there. Now, drugs are passing hands nonstop, 24/7. It is not uncommon to see addicts shooting up in broad daylight.

Addiction has shoved women and men out of jobs, out of homes and onto the street in a never-ending chase for the next fix. Of the 300 or so who camp out in the area during warm months, at least 80 percent use heroin, said police Sgt. Sam Wolf.

Folks down on their luck looking for a roof have gathered on Rio Grande Street in Salt Lake City’s downtown for more than three decades. But only in recent years has it become a nasty hub of drug dealers and addicts who pose a danger to shelter clients and passers-by — shootings in the shadows from drug deals gone bad, nighttime bludgeonings over turf and people overdosing on hot sidewalks under the bright sun.

Traditionally, issues involving housing, employment and health care have spawned swift currents that people on the lower economic rungs struggle against, and all three remain major issues, particularly with the cost of apartments rising in the Salt Lake Valley. But homelessness is not up significantly over the past several years, according to state data.

Yet many observers say the lawlessness, drug use and squalor around The Road Home, the shelter located at 210 S. Rio Grande St. (450 West), have never been so prevalent.

During the past four years, the opioid epidemic, fueled by prescription drugs that lead many to heroin, has surged into the area, as it has in many locales across the country. It has upended decades of work by local, state and federal agencies, as well as a multitude of private entities, seeking to help the state’s homeless population.

“The long-term plans are great,” she said, referring to three proposed new homeless shelters/resource centers and programs that won’t open their doors for at least two years. “But we need immediate action down there. We need an action plan to come up with ways to keep drug dealers from using the area.”

“They prostitute themselves for a little bit of dope,” Wolf said. “It takes a mental toll on them. They’ve made that choice, and it tears them up emotionally.”

Last week, police arrested a 20-year-old woman just before she was going to shoot up. She told The Salt Lake Tribune her name was Meresa and that she had been on the street since she was 16. She was gaunt with blotchy skin and sat in the back of a patrol car in handcuffs weeping.

Some people become addicted to pain pills prescribed by a physician. At some point, they may seek pills on the black market, fall into homelessness and turn to heroin, according to service providers. Some 45 percent of heroin users became addicted to prescription opioids first, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Others who experiment with drugs recreationally fall prey to heroin with similar results, according to law enforcement. And some who weren’t drug users, but found themselves at the shelter, take up drugs to alleviate the stress of their predicament and become addicted. Either way, homeless addicts find it difficult to get off the street.

And those drug cartels are more organized than ever, according to law enforcement officials. They use cellphones to coordinate buys, avoid arrest by using runners who are addicts, and have access to a staggering flow of heroin. When a dealer is busted by police, Wolf said, others are soon on the scene to fill the void.

A Salt Lake County survey of 586 people living in and around The Road Home in November revealed that 30 percent said they suffered from behavioral problems.

About a third of those surveyed said they had been in jail in the past six months. Half those surveyed said they were from out of state.

Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune Salt Lake City police Sgt. Sam Wolf talks to homeless people Wednesday who are camped near 200 South and 500 West in Salt Lake City’s Rio Grande neighborhood. He wakes up dozens of displaced people on the sidewalks, telling them that they have to break down their camps and offering advice about where to find help. Camping on the street is a class B misdemeanor.

The former sheriff went further, saying The Road Home and service providers are enabling drug addicts who are not seeking a way back to productive society. They have a place to stay, plenty to eat, free clothing, medical care and easy access to drugs.

By contrast, Brown, Salt Lake City’s police chief, said the community must treat the homeless with dignity, no matter whether they are addicted or mentally ill, though he maintains it is important for officers to be able to arrest people who are openly using drugs. It makes the environment better and gives jailed addicts a pause to reflect upon their circumstances.

However, the City Council earlier funded eight social worker positions within the police department. These social workers help willing homeless people get into treatment. Since 2015, they have worked from the Community Connection Center on the corner of 200 South and 500 West. From October 2015 to June 30, 236 volunteer walk-ins have sought treatment. That group has about a 50 percent success rate, according to the police chief.

According to police stats, over 189,000 doses of drugs valued at $1.5 million were seized in the area in 2016 — a jump of 58 percent over 2015.

Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune Salt Lake City police Sgt. Sam Wolf shows a warning notice that says camping on the sidewalks in Salt Lake City is a class B misdemeanor.

Although the number of homeless people remains relatively unchanged — hovering around 3,000 on any given day — those seeking services from providers in 2016 equaled 13,614. Among other things, that means people are moving in and out of homelessness, said Jonathan Hardy, director for the state Division of Housing and Community Development.

Not only has Housing First been pushed to the back burner, but folks seeking treatment for addiction or mental health issues find a dearth of inpatient treatment centers. That is due partly to the way the state responded to the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of Medicaid. State leaders didn’t want to accept the broader Obamacare program and instead sought a limited waiver. They’ve been unsuccessful, losing out on tens of millions of dollars to treat addiction and mental illness.

Utah is poised to apply again for money that would provide treatment for as many as 6,000 people suffering from mental disorders and addiction.

Such funding could be critical as Salt Lake City and the county move to the scattered-site model for three new resource centers. The planned emergency shelters that would coordinate services for clients are expected to house a total of about 700 people — 400 less than The Road Home can now accommodate. The proposed system, however, is not designed for homeless people who are addicts or who need mental health therapy.

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