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Lawmakers Concerned About Increasing Homelessness In Rio Grande Area

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – Some state lawmakers are upset with the growing homeless encampments in the Rio Grande area, saying they want Salt Lake City officials to step in and use state funding they get to help these people get treatment and a place to live.

Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, worked on Operation Rio Grande.

“We used to have all of our shelters right here. And that was the problem they all congregated,” he said. “”Now we are starting to see people come back again. There is no patrol down here.”

Salt Lake City Police Department records show a significant drop in crimes in the last three years in the Rio Grande area. Up until July 1, Utah Highway Patrol troopers were stationed on the streets downtown. They left due to COVID-19 budget cuts.

“The numbers are down thanks to the state of Utah and the highway patrol. Now that we aren’t doing that anymore, let’s see what happens to the crime rates over the next six months,” said Ray.

Ray said he would like to see Salt Lake City police stationed there now, instead of just patrolling.

David Litvak with the mayor’s office explained during the Criminal Code Evaluation Task Force meeting that the police department has been pulled in different directions with COVID-19 and recent protests. They are focused on homelessness across the city.

“We were really cognitive to not disperse those encampments with the fear that they could spread COVID-19,” he said.

Ray’s fear is that those living in the encampment aren’t getting help for their personal struggles or illnesses. He hasn’t spoken directly to the mayor about his concerns, but he said he challenges her to step in and make a change.

“Don’t rely on state money. This is your area. This is an area that should be a priority to you. This doesn’t seem to be a priority to the mayor,” he said.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall responded in a statement.

“I absolutely agree that homelessness is an increasingly pressing matter affecting people in Salt Lake City, including in the Rio Grande area,” she said in the statement. “There are many factors that contribute to this complex situation, from the county jail denying entry and expediting inmate releases and near-and-at capacity Homeless Resource Centers, to the state’s recent extraction of financial and public safety investments that were put into the Rio Grande area years ago, with an expectation of no change on our streets after their removal.”

She said homelessness is a statewide issue.

“Homelessness is a statewide issue; cities do not create homelessness, but they attract it.  Salt Lake City invests millions of dollars each year into homeless services, social workers, and housing stability. As a city, our primary role is to ensure public safety and this area is a priority. Our SLCPD officers work very hard to remove the criminal elements that prey on homeless populations, but their work is often for naught when the jail will not accept or hold individuals. State and county partners are critical to addressing the very real barriers of full HRCs and jail limitations,” she said.

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