Homeless 'safe space' opens in Salt Lake's Rio Grande neighborhood

Homeless 'safe space' opens in Salt Lake's Rio Grande neighborhood (Photo: Patrick Fitzgibbon/KUTV)

(KUTV) A major part of the effort to clean up Salt Lake City’s Rio Grande neighborhood is now in place.

The so-called “safe space” for the homeless is up and running as of Friday morning. The fenced-off area at the north end of Rio Grande Street is now accessible only to people with a special identification card.

The idea, community leaders say, is to provide a place for the homeless to go without the criminal element that has devastated that area for years.

“I think it’s a good idea, in theory,” said Chrystle, who has lived on the west side of downtown Salt Lake for several years. “It feels more safe to me than anything.”

Others disagree. Willie, who is homeless, doesn’t like it.

“I feel like I’m in prison,” he told 2News. “This here is sort of like a waste of money to me.”

It cost $200,000 to create this haven for the homeless, according to Nate McDonald with the Utah Department of Workforce Services. The department worked during the past few weeks to distribute more than 900 identification cards to the homeless to enter the safe space.

“It’s an ID card that pretty much says, all right, we now know who you are, we now know what services you're getting inside here,” said McDonald. “It's not shared with law enforcement.”

Once inside, those who are homeless can hang out, access services, and get other help. The card is not required to access the shelter or the soup kitchen.

House Speaker Greg Hughes (R-Draper) stopped by Friday morning to check things out. He battled hard to get the safe space open, tussling with Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski over it.

Hughes argued the space is vital to keep the criminals away.

“Status quo is a tough battle but we're seeing a change and I think it's for the better,” Hughes said. “Today's a big day.”

Those in charge admit this is a work in progress. People who frequent the Rio Grande area will be watching to see how it all turns out.

“I’m happy for the changes, I'm proud for the changes,” said Chrystle, “but there's still a lot more changes that need to happen.”

The safe space is scheduled to be open until June 2019 when the new homeless resource centers open and the population is expected to move away from Rio Grande.

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