Lydia - 4,143 miles, 149 hours
On my first day volunteering for The Road Home I had an orientation downtown at the shelter. I followed the directions sent to me for parking, and pulled into a garage connected to The Gateway in downtown Salt Lake. According to The Gateway's website, they tout themselves as an "open-air contemporary destination that delivers the ultimate in shopping, dining and entertainment." I'd say it's a rather fair assessment; think fancy shopping mall with lots of nice restaurants and apartments.
Leaving The Gateway's parking garage I'm taken through part of the complex, and come across lots of nicely dressed families and couples enjoying dinner outside. Smiles, laughter, and the smell of good food permeate the air. As I walk out of the mall and cross the street to get to the shelter, the dynamic begins to drastically change. The street is as crowded as a New York City block, but has the pace of a zombie apocalypse. Most people are sprawled out on the ground, shirtless, with likely everything they own next to them. On this side of the street, bloodshot eyes, greasy hair, and the smell of spice and chemicals pervade. In my short 30 second walk from the street to the shelter doors, I've been offered hard drug after hard drug, and seen close to all of them being ingested.
For the next week, each day I come to the shelter starts off like this. Pulling into the colorfully lit parking garage of The Gateway, and turning around to pass through the dim street-turned-alley that is Rio Grande. The street is a breeding ground for drug traffic, drug use, and crime. I work the front desk, and nearly every day a security guard comes around back to scour the outdoor security camera tapes to get a better look at violent activity that had taken place outside. In my first two weeks, there are probably a dozen assaults that I hear of and three homicides. When I leave the shelter each day, I can feel the tensions running high on the street.
This past week, I came to the shelter on Monday and parked at the Gateway just as I always do. As I came up the steps from the garage and began to cross over to Rio Grande Street, I noticed nearly all of the street is empty except for a handful of police officers, a couple mobile command stations, and one or two news trucks. I'm actually quite startled walking down the street. In just one weekend, the whole place had gone from a beehive of activity to a near ghost town. Sitting down at the front desk, I overheard a group of coworkers talking about something called Operation Rio Grande.
Operation Rio Grande is an effort to clean up the Rio Grande neighborhood of Salt Lake City. This neighborhood is that which houses The Road Home shelter and many other support agencies, which in recent years has seen levels of violent and drug based crime increase drastically. The operation is set to last two years, and has three phases: 1) public safety, 2) assessment and treatment, and 3) dignity of work. The first phase kicked off this past Monday in the middle of my sabbatical, which in turn meant staffing five times the normal amount of law enforcement presence in the neighborhood 24/7. In just four days, this led to 282 arrests.
All around the city there is discussion as to the efficacy of this three phased approach, and as you can imagine, it is a hotly debated topic. Many residents here at the shelter are happy that the streets are less crowded and that likely the possibility for crime has gone down. However, many are also concerned about how long it can last, what will happen to all those arrested, and if the operation can sustain its current pace.
It is very early on in the process and I myself even have a lot to learn about everything going on here in Salt Lake. I'm sure I'll be writing more about it soon, but for now all I can tell is that homelessness in this city is creating a healthy discussion that has many residents engaged with each other and their local politicians. They're taking real action here in Salt Lake and even though it remains to be seen what will happen, I can sense their compassion, pride, and perseverance. Reminds me of another city I know.