To: The Pioneer Park Coalition
From: Bryson Garbett
I buy land next to Pioneer Park to build condos and approach a local bank for a loan. They have absolutely no interest because of "all the homeless and the problems they bring to that neighborhood." I approach another bank, one with whom I have done many business loans, and they tell me the same thing. I didn't think there existed parts of Salt Lake for which banks refuse to lend, but I'm wrong. The banks do not obfuscate; they won't lend in that part of town.
I then investigate what the city government is doing. They tell me they have tried before without success and that nothing can be done. I feel incredulous. The area is the gateway to the city. It is home to Salt Lake’s only downtown park. It is the neighborhood of the Gateway Mall, the Children’s Museum, the Larry Miller Arena, the Rio Grande, and many other notable businesses, shops and restaurants. Nevertheless, I find a city that has quit trying and banks that will not invest. They abandon a vital part of Salt Lake to fall into a downward spiral of decay.
I am now at a loss for what to do. I cannot build and yet I cannot simply walk away. I am convinced that the neighborhood can flourish under the right investment and care. It needs residents to give it true vitality and energy. I soon realize that banding together with all the other businesses is my only option. I know just the person to head it the Pioneer Park Coalition. Scott Howell has a unmatched ability to work with people and get things done. One last pending issue troubles me. I have no real understanding of homelessness. What I see in the neighborhood is a lot a people hanging around, but I have no idea what they do or what else goes on in the streets. I know that I can never truly comprehend homelessness and all its devastating consequences, but at the very least, I want to learn about the services available to the homeless and what it is like to navigate them.
One Saturday afternoon I put away my wallet and phone- two things I never go anywhere without- pack an old duffel bag with a change of clothes, and walk out my door. No phone. No ID. No credit card. Once on Trax, in the free fare zone, I head toward town center. I spot a homeless gentleman and follow him to The Road Home. Once I arrive I know my first objective is to find a place to sleep for the night. There are plenty of people around. I do not know what to do so I to ask and am told, “Get in line there.” Only a few people are in line; most are just hanging around.
They will not let us in until 10:30pm, which is three hours away, but if I want a bed, I cannot leave the line. The fellow who pointed out the line to me soon comes over and gets in line behind me. We were line mates for the rest of the evening. “I’ve been on the streets for 5 years,” he tells me. Off and on he gets a job, loses a job, becomes homeless, and returns to the shelter. He is young and kind. His vocabulary follows the local standard with every other word a profanity, and he is not happy with his life or with being back at the shelter, but it is his fall-back and he is grateful for that. I learn that only if we are lucky we will get a bed. We are waiting for the beds that others were given earlier in the day but forfeit by not showing up at 10:00 PM. Otherwise, the shelter will give us a pad and a blanket for sleeping on the floor. For the three hours I stand in line, I watch in amazement at what goes on around me. I am sure I am catching only a small part.
It is hard to describe the scene. Drugs quickly take the forefront- in a few hours I must see at least 45 deals. Little black bags, the size of a pill, are heroin and the pill-sized white bags are crack. Everything is a stream of anger, fear, tension, swearing, and the occasional fitful laughter. Somebody bangs on the portapotties because he has grown tired of waiting; other noises come from the toilets. There are bodies on the cement passed out, groups of homeless talking, warning calls for when police are coming, and police passing by but never approaching close. Others come, others go. All is in commotion, nothing good, and lots and lots of drugs being bought and sold.
I am staggered. These streets are controlled by the criminal drug dealers. The city and the police have no authority here. For a dollar, cigarettes filled with Spice- weeds with chemicals on them- will make you high for six hours. The little black or white bags are probably ten dollars. For three hours I watch the dealers selling unhindered. Money passes hands, then the drugs are exchanged later. Some buyers offer stolen goods such as shoes still in their boxes or clothes still with tags instead of cash. Some buyers are young college-aged kids who are clearly not homeless. I see a father pushing his daughter in a stroller make a buy.
The dealers use the line of homeless as their shield from the police. They use the homeless as their prey. I quickly realize this has to be the absolute worst place in the city for the homeless. I imagine my line mate lost his job because of his addiction, but his fall-back place is a hot-bed of temptation.
After long hours the line finally starts to move, but I am held up for just a moment by the person in front of me who is too drug-dazed to get up. The pause and my hesitation means that those with more experience behind me quickly move in front. I lose my bed.
Each person answers a few questions and then is let in. Because it is my first night, I am questioned extensively. I check my bag, go through the metal detector, and am given a very thin pad and blanket. “Find a place,” I am told brusquely as I take the blanket. “Where?” I ask. “On the floor,” she says looking at me as though I am pretty dense. I put my mat down and set my blanket down on it and head to the bathroom. The blanket is gone when I return. It is a long, noisy night on The Road Home’s lobby-room floor. By 4:30 AM I am not rested but get up. The bathroom toilet stalls have no doors on them. I will get used to it. They are steel toilets. I am grateful for them.
I am out the door and on the streets by 6:30 AM. Now what? It is Sunday. The ever-present drug crowd is already up and active outside the door with bodies on the street passed out or asleep. I am surprised by how much is going on. I learn it never stops.
I begin talking with some of the other guys outside who, like me, have nothing to do, and learn that there will be a breakfast at 9:00 AM at Pioneer Park. It includes sermons and clothing that is given away. After breakfast, it is just before 10:00 AM, the hour they start giving the day’s beds away at the shelter. I head back to The Road Home to get in line to get a bed for the night. I wait in line for 2 hours. This time I get a bed. They apologize for putting me, an older guest, on the second bunk but I just feel grateful to get a bed. I will need to be back at my bed by 10 PM or they will give it away. Guys are already napping, some are reading, others are watching football on the TV, some go shower and clean up. It feels orderly and respectful, entirely unlike the hellish street just outside. I spend the day talking and watching and sleep well that night.
When I wake up early the next morning, the floor is covered with men who came in during the night. I leave the shelter and take Trax to Home Depot on 2100 South to try to get work. When I arrive, there are about 15 guys on the curb. That number soon grows to over 30. This is where you go if you do not have documents or you have run out of other options. With documents and ID you have better options. Someone drives up in their truck and looks for someone that can do stucco. It is not a very hopeful place.
I spend the morning waiting unsuccessfully to get work and eventually give up and take Trax back to The Road Home to get in line to get a bed for the night. I am successful and it feels good to have a bed again for the night. I go next door and have lunch at Vinney’s (St. Vincent): two hotdogs with french fries and a small glass of milk. I spend the afternoon at the Catholic center where there are movies, showers, and counselors. But most people just hung around outside in the street in the thick of the drugs.
I get in line with everyone else at 4:00 PM for dinner at 5:30 PM. We are served chili on top of the leftover fries from lunch with a brownie and bologna sandwich. As I get up to take my tray to the clean-up counter, I am stopped by a guy who asks if he can have my brownie. He is hungry for treats.
That night as I head back to the shelter I run the usual gauntlet of drug dealers. I am grateful I do not have to stay in line outside for three hours like the first night, and find guys watching TV, reading and sleeping inside. I try to read for a while and then go to sleep. Again, in the morning when I wake up there are guys everywhere on the floor with mats. I am out by 4:30 AM on the street. The scene is the same. I am approached three times to buy drugs. Bodies are on the ground, others are just drifting around stoned and high. Trax does not run that early so I walk back to my life and my home.
What started out as a problem I saw with Pioneer Park, but I found a much bigger problem. I found in my city the most disgusting place I have ever been in my life. The police have no control, and the homeless are the victims of the city’s ugly neglect. The Road Home and its neighboring services are where the homeless go for help, but what the homeless are surrounded with on the streets is an appalling nightmare. The crime and drugs needs to stop. If we are really interested in the homeless we cannot let it continue.
See more in The Salt Lake Tribune:
Rolly: Searching for hope amid Salt Lake City’s homeless
By Paul Rolly - Monday, December 22nd, 2015