Advocates for the homeless say SLC’s Rio Grande district ‘more unsafe than it’s ever been’

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SALT LAKE CITY -- The situation surrounding the homeless shelters in downtown Salt Lake City is nearing a crisis.

Homeless advocates told a state commission Wednesday that drugs, crime and safety issues are the worst they've been in decades.

The words from homeless advocates and those who help the poor put a sense of urgency to the need to fix the problems in the Rio Grande area and put more shelters in the city.

“It is more unsafe than it's ever been down there,” said Pamela Atkinson.

Atkinson, a long-time advocate for the area’s homeless population, says mental illness and the drug dealing is creating a "crisis" situation in Salt Lake City’s Rio Grande district.

For the first time, she says she feels unsafe around the shelters and worries someone could get hurt.

“I want us to be able to do something to prevent the crisis that I think will occur,” she said. “I fear for the staff who work down there, I fear for the business people down there, and I fear for people who are really homeless and actually need the help that the shelter and others can provide.”

Atkinson serves on the Homeless Services Site Evaluation Commission. It's a group that will pick the location of the new shelters in the state.

She was not alone in expressing her fears about what's happening on Rio Grande.

“Summer's here,” one person who addressed the commission said. “The tsunami is upon us. The populations are crazy, and substance abuse: The drug distribution is outrageous!”

Homeless advocates claim the people causing the problems aren't the homeless, but rather drug dealers and others who prey upon those who are down on their luck.

“We've got a real problem with spice,” Atkinson said. “I think it's as cheap as going and buying a bottle of beer.”

The commission took Atkinson's words seriously. The legislature is funding new shelters and more health care and mental health resources over the next three years.

But there's also a short-term need.

“It gives more motivation to the committee to solve it,” said David Litvack, deputy chief of staff for the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Office. “It also, I think, is affirming we're moving in the right direction.”

Salt Lake City police are beefing up patrols in the summer months.

Mary Hogle, the only formerly homeless person to serve on the commission, says you can help out. She said stop going down to Rio Grande thinking you're doing a good deed.

“Money, clothes, gift cards: It has to stop,” Hogle said. “Donate the money to the clinic, to the Road Home, to Catholic Community Services, or pass out $5 McDonald's cards, but don't do it in your car and don't do it as you drive down the street. Donate in your community, because it's just not helping our community."

The commission may begin looking at properties for a shelter as early as this fall.

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