“I can’t even go for a walk in my neighborhood without getting propositioned by a John,” demurred one resident of Salt Lake City’s Ballpark neighborhood. “I’m afraid to go walk in my own neighborhood.”
The Ballpark and Liberty Wells neighborhoods have much in common, including close proximity to Downtown and Sugar House, easy access to public transit, and — in recent years — an uptick in crime. Residents of the adjacent neighborhoods assembled Monday evening at Salt Lake Community College’s South City Campus in Liberty Wells to share their thoughts with local officials and find out what exactly is being done to combat the issue. Area business owners were also invited to attend the event, which drew a sizable group.
Dubbed the “Shine a Light on Crime Town Hall Meeting,” Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall hosted the event. Mendenhall, whose district includes both neighborhoods, labeled the current situation as “unacceptable.” Other officials who were on hand for the meeting included Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, Salt Lake City Council Members Derek Kitchen, Charlie Luke, and Andrew Johnston; Salt Lake County Council Members Richard Snelgrove, Aimee Winder-Newton, and Max Burdick; Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown, and Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder.
Biskupski emphasized the importance of working together as a community to help improve Ballpark and Liberty Wells, which have experienced problems with drug dealing, prostitution, and homelessness. “What we need to do to really get to the core of these problems is to face the realities of today and when we face those realities it gives us a real opportunity to work together and create a different path forward.”
Common complaints from residents include people sleeping and urinating in yards, homeless people breaking into the neighborhood’s many abandoned properties, prostitutes and drug dealers setting up shop in alleyways behind residences, and many pointed to the motels on State Street as a prime source of the trouble. “I certainly know and feel that the motels are our number one issue commercially on State Street and we’ll be working on this,” Mendenhall said.
One resident, who likes to drink coffee near Liberty Park, praised police officers for increasing their involvement in the area. “When I first got here four years ago, I had people coming up and asking me if I wanted a cigarette or a marijuana cigarette. Now, with the cops coming in so often to get coffee and having a presence there, they don’t even come around.”
David Morris, who owns the Piper Down Tavern: An Olde World Pub, decried his inability to get through to a live person when calling the non-emergency dispatch number. “I feel so sorry when I do actually get through to dispatch and the cops come out and they do arrest someone for being crazy out of their mind on heroin and naked in the street and walking out on the street and a danger to everybody. They’re arrested and the next morning I see them just as high as the day before and they say [the police] don’t have room in the jails. That’s crazy to me. These people are a danger to themselves and everybody else. I own a business, I’m trying to make my money the legal way, and they are chasing off my customers.”
“Everybody knows all the craziness going up and down the street and we know it’s drugs and drugs lead to prostitution and all that stuff. Is there any path out of that for the prostitutes and the addicted people?” Morris queried. “There are none right now. There are few. There are so few. We’re working right now on a judicial action — instead of felony after felony after felony. We used to have a program called the Prostitution Outreach Program over a decade ago with Sim Gill and Judge [John] Baxter.”
“The [city] council is going to be bringing Sim Gill in to talk about the possibility of bringing back the Prostitution Outreach Program, which is a ten-week alternative to another felony. There’s also a John’s program we’re going to talk about,” Mendenhall responded.
“We need detox and we need housing. This homeless housing conversation happening right now gives us the opportunity to look at a facility that can accommodate the really complex — very complex — and deep needs that are distinct about the sex worker population that are distinct for victims of sexual assault, which 99 percent of those women are. We need to be able to serve them in a way that doesn’t make them feel ostracized,” Mendenhall added.
Sheriff Winder contended that his office is not at fault for the revolving door at the county jail — there is simply a lack of funds to cover additional beds. “When we treat them with your dollars to get them stabilized on their medications, you know what our step-down program is? Your park. So after we’ve spent thousands of dollars medicating an individual to stabilize them because you’ve seen them out on the streets over and over again, they walk out the door and there’s no damn treatment for them. I’ll tell you what, would I like to open more jail space? You bet I would. Are we to go out to the citizens and ask for that money? We’ve done it every single year and we’ve gotten no response from the communities in this county. We don’t serve Salt Lake City alone in the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office; we serve 1.2 million residents. Most of whom, I’ll be quite frank with you, will not squeak a dime out of their pocket to increase any of the services that we provide.”
Winder urged the public to not automatically assume that sending area criminals to jail is the answer. “Ladies and gentlemen, I have staff down there that are booking 120 people a day. Individuals that come to me you see off your streets and, again, we have nowhere to put them. I beg you to come back and talk and learn about what we’re doing in the jail, rather than simply standing here and saying ‘Book em,’ book em,’ book em.””
Numerous city agencies were on hand to answer questions from residents before and after the program, including the Redevelopment Agency of Salt Lake City (RDA). The RDA is currently in the process of putting together a redevelopment plan for the State Street area.
100 neighborhood watch signs — made by Liberty Wells resident Clyde Peck-Trujillo and purchased from him by Councilwoman Mendenhall — were handed out to attendees, as well as free porch light bulbs.