“Handle Your Shit”
In 2012, the little pocket of desperation on Rio Grande Street saw 82 police responses to complaints of “simple assault,” which can range from shoves to brawls. That year, police made eight arrests from the 82 complaints and six aggravated assault arrests from 19 complaints (see map, p. 18). With Rio Grande occupied by so many cop-wary inhabitants, enforcement for most any crime is a challenge, which means residents tend to settle their differences on their own.
In mid-January, two men charged full speed toward each other from either side of Rio Grande, colliding in the middle of the road, swinging wild punches over each other’s heads, while an onlooker yelled, “Handle your shit!” By the time I had my phone out to call the police, the fight ended after one of the brawlers landed a knee on the other’s ribs with a thud, while friends intervened to break up the fight.
Salt Lake City Police Sgt. Jenn Diederich, who has policed the shelter area since 2011, says it’s no coincidence that when patrol cars approach the street, people start whistling.
“It’s one of those areas well sought-after for drugs,” Diederich says. “It’s hard to curb, but we do a bit.”
Observation of drug selling and using on Rio Grande, however, suggests a largely unchecked open-air drug market. Police records show little luck in making drug arrests on Rio Grande. In 2012, for example, this street saw just two arrests for drug sales, both for cocaine. The area did see 37 drug-possession arrests, but 20 of those arrests were for possession of narcotic paraphernalia. To put this in perspective, I witnessed more drug sales on my first night hanging out on Rio Grande than there were drug-sale arrests made on the street for all of 2012.
Diederich takes pride in SLCPD’s Homeless Outreach Services Team (HOST), which, since 2011, has worked collaboratively with service providers to try to improve relationships with homeless residents and refer them to services instead of just giving them tickets. Diederich says her squad has helped 10 individuals find more stable housing since the program launched.
She believes her squad has learned how to keep better relations with the homeless by prioritizing the prevention of serious violence over petty offenses.
“Sometimes, you give up the little things to get the big things,” Diederich says.
But it seems of the variety of officers who patrol the area, some still apparently do worry about the little things.
At Judge John Baxter’s “Homeless Court”—a justice court held twice a month in the Weigand Day Center that helps refer homeless people to community service as opposed to jail—the judge shakes his head upon seeing yet another ticket for spitting on the street issued by the same officer.
“Well, I have this cough, so I spit,” says a woman in her 60s.
“Well, ’tis the season,” Baxter says, giving her two hours of community service.
Baxter says that if more of these “nuisance” charges were fought, it could deter the writing of frivolous tickets. But most homeless people won’t invest the time to defend themselves. The homeless “simply don’t take them to trial,” Baxter says.
Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank is proud of HOST, but he’s also realistic about “the business we’re in,” as he puts it. Police have to respond to complaints.
“If a drug dealer goes up into the Avenues and stands on a corner, I’m going to get 25 phone calls,” Burbank says. “Down in that area, we don’t get the phone calls.”
Burbank says dealers exploit the homeless with drugs or threats of violence, and the homeless don’t reach out to police because of mistrust. He hopes the department’s softer approach can build better relationships with residents in the area. But that desire can be thwarted, however, in the way police respond to complaints of the homeless “trespassing” on the property of a restaurant located at 270 Rio Grande St.
In fall 2012, Mark Stewart, who is not homeless, was working as a server at a restaurant in The Gateway. He walked through the parking lot and received a trespassing ticket.
Stewart says he was taken aback by the fact that police seemed to be waiting for him there. He recently requested trespassing records from the Salt Lake City Police Department for the parking lot and shared the information with City Weekly.
According to the records, SLCPD responded to three trespassing incidences in 2010, nine in 2011 and a whopping 189 in 2012.
“Police are handing out no trespassing tickets like candy [to the homeless],” Stewart says.
Sgt. Michelle Ross, head of the SLCPD’s HOST team, says that officers in the shelter area walk a difficult line between building trust and maintaining a police presence to ward off the hard-core criminals who hide among the homeless.
“You can’t just disappear because then the criminals end up running the street,” Ross says. She also says that not every police officer is a HOST officer who’s had the sensitivity training needed to refer the homeless to help instead of just citing or arresting them. Within the next few months, however, Ross hopes to expand the training to all officers.
“What we’re trying to do is roll out the HOST program citywide,” Ross says.
In observing police on Rio Grande, I did notice officers routinely working to see that people were OK, rather than to see if they were breaking the law. Officers often stopped to make sure the people lying on the sidewalks wrapped in frost-covered blankets were healthy and well.
Salt Lake City Fire Department Captain Chris Valdez describes the area as the closest things Utah’s got to “socialized medicine.” He estimates half his calls from Fire Station No. 2 go to the shelter area, responding to heart attacks, seizures, drug overdoses and, frequently, individuals who are gaming the system just to spend the night in the hospital.
“It’s not a really healthy population, and the 911 system has become, in some ways, the primary medical care for them,” Valdez says. He estimates that every visit to the street likely costs $100 to $200 for the taxpayers. When individuals have to go to the hospital, it can bill Medicaid as much as $1,500.
No Country for Old Junkies
The Rio Grande homeless community often exists by its own rules. When mental illness, criminal records and an adapted mistrust of authority seem to leave some without help, they find ways to help themselves.
This kind of adaption is simply “survival” if you were to ask “Hank,” who, at age 52, is an “old school” soul of the street. Unlike Jeff, who has spent less than a decade on the street, Hank has chosen the street life for the past 35 years, ever since he got out of prison in Illinois in the ’80s. It was his first stint inside after having wrecked a car with a trunk full of guns and dope. Surviving brutal prison life left him with the impression that his brand of survival is what he’s best at, even if it means he spends his life on the streets.
Hank is thin, yet muscular, with tattoos that cover the lengths of his arms, and a copper-tinged goatee that surrounds a wild smile. As far as survival by criminal means, he’s “been there, done that and got a T-shirt.” This includes serving time in Nebraska for armed robbery and in California for manslaughter after he unloaded a clip into a man looking to rob him of 2 pounds of speed. Nowadays, his crimes are mostly petty, since he’s been looking for a job as a maintenance technician.
Once, while I was speaking with Hank on Rio Grande, a police car rolled up in front of us so an officer could help an elderly man make it into the shelter. As this happened, Hank casually stuffed a small bag of pills into his cheek and continued talking.
Hank believes in the street, but he also recognizes that it’s a place where people can either kill themselves in whatever way they choose or get care if they want—and most choose not to.
“People out there say, ‘Oh, I can’t get help,’ ” Hank says. “Fuck you, you can get help, but you don’t want it—and that applies to every swinging dick up and down this street.”
He is philosophical about the war on drugs, arguing that when drugs and users are the targets of police prosecution, it creates environments like Rio Grande, where desperate people who mistrust the police engage in violence.
But on the other hand, he argues, “the street takes care of people.” That evening, a man borrowed Hank’s lighter and gave him a pack of gum as thanks. Up the block, when an elderly woman fell on the ice, Hank and I helped walk her to the women’s shelter entrance. The street culture seems to operate on favors, alliances and support from people who don’t judge one another for being addicts because they are addicts themselves.
Hank acknowledges that people can be lost to the streets, he himself having lost a friend two nights prior to my first meeting with him. His friend drank a bottle of mouthwash, passed out on the street and never woke up.
“There are no old junkies,” Hank says.
Salt Lake City Council Chair Kyle Lamalfa is open to partnering with other entities to do more homeless services outreach, but also says that the city shouldn’t fully fund or run major programs. Doing so would cut into other benefits—park grass would go unwatered or parking rates would have to be increased.
“I know voters in Salt Lake City are progressive, but when it comes to making those hard choices, it really hits home,” Lamalfa says.
Salt Lake City Councilman Luke Garrott, whose 4th District includes downtown Salt Lake City, says that ever since the Reagan administration cut federal dollars that cities used to provide homeless services in the ’80s, Salt Lake City, like other cities, hasn’t funded social-justice programs (now, most of the help comes through nonprofits that administer federal grants). While cities receive less, he doesn’t see it as an excuse not to try.
“Cities have abrogated a lot of their social-justice responsibilities, given the Reagan-era cuts, and Clinton administration cuts, for that matter,” Garrott says. “But we can’t ignore vital parts of our community, and the poor and vulnerable are parts of our community. We can’t and shouldn’t just shove off responsibility on to other levels of government.”
Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker’s spokesman, Art Raymond, points out that the city keeps busy just coordinating federal grants with the right service providers. While he acknowledges there’s not much political will for direct funding, he does point out that Becker is looking to forge regional partnerships to pool resources on the homeless issue.
“The homeless issue isn’t a Salt Lake City thing, it’s a societal thing,” Raymond says. “But it’s also something we’re hoping to encourage our nearby valley municipalities to be involved with fiscally, and see what we can do at that level.”
The poet E.E. Cummings penned a line describing the world of an eccentric New York City bowery bum, describing an “amoral morality sort-of-aliveing by innumerable kind-of-deaths.”
When I met Jeff at the Salt Lake City Main Library a month after seeing him last, he was in a “sort-of-aliveing” kind of state. After suffering for five weeks with flu, pink eye and a case of strep throat that gave him a rattling cough, he bought a box of soda and sold the cans individually for a profit that he used to buy a pint of vodka. Call it a justification or an excuse, Jeff says he hoped the alcohol might kill the infection in his throat. Still, he seemed ashamed that I had caught up with him after he’d fallen off the wagon for the first time in months.
Jeff’s days, he says, are spent in the library filling out job applications, most for temporary staffing positions that have gone nowhere. Worn down, he says he’s committed to getting out of his situation, but he’s losing heart. Jeff does not aspire to survive the same way Hank does. For him, getting sober, getting a place to live, getting a job and going to school is just “existing.” Where he’s at now, he doesn’t consider living.
“I’ve lived once, it was nice,” Jeff says.