"Black, white, what ya need?"
I'd barely shuffled across 200 West toward the northwest corner of the Rio Grande downtown homeless shelter when a man approached me asking what drugs I wanted. Black for black tar heroin or white for meth or crack cocaine.
I was in the company of Det. Greg Wilking of Salt Lake City Police Department. We had both thrown on our grubbies and for a few hours that rain, snow-driven afternoon walked around the shelter, in search of insight into drug use.
I would not pretend to assume I learned anything from such a cursory tour of those streets, but what I saw was shocking. At the same time it also encouraged me as I wrote this week's cover story about a former homeless youth, addict and dealer who has managed to build a new life for himself away from "The Block
," as residents and law enforcement call those streets. It made me realize that however much you parachute in and out of the block, the only way to really see it is through the eyes of those who've lived there and can speak from experience about the economics and realities of trying to survive there.
As Wilking and I shuffled round the block, attempting to match the slow gait of those around us, it was impossible to ignore the litter from slammin', or drug injection. There were dozens of used syringes in the gutters, against buildings and needle caps along with what Wilking termed "tooter straws," for smoking heroin and meth.
Then there were the round pieces of plastic that had held tiny amounts of heroin and meth that lay around particularly the entrance to the men's shelter like oversized white, gray and black snow flakes.
Wilking hadn't been down to the shelter in a few years. The last time he'd brought a friend's son with him who was struggling with heroin, had been through treatment, done well, then relapsed. But if his intention was a cold, hard slap in the face as to what might await the youth, "It didn't have the desired effect," Wilking says. His friend's son still struggles with drugs.
Wilking expressed surprise at the number of tents, tarps and structures set up on 500 West on the men's side of the shelter and down toward University Boulevard.
We stood outside the two public toilets that had been put in several years ago by the entrance to the men's shelter. Five people, several of them women went into one cubicle, one clutching a meth pipe. A worker pushing a broom, gathering the garbage that had collected around the facilities, tried in vain to tell another group going in they had to use it one at a time.
One man discharged pepper spray into the air; another ran past screaming for "papers," to roll cigarettes. Everyone seemed to need a lighter.
Wilking expressed hope that a new approach to the environment around buildings plagued by crime called CPTED, (Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design) would keep the new homeless resource centers Salt Lake City
and Salt Lake County
are planning from being besieged by similar problems.
While he hopes that the small numbers being served at the centers would not generate the overwhelming volume of people that currently congregate around The Road Home
, he cited a range of elements in CPTED's arsenal that can be utilized to deter people from loitering around such properties including statues, benches that don't allow sleeping and even plants that keep people away from the walls of a building. "It's fighting crime with art," he says.
We went into HOST, a Salt Lake City Police Department initiative offering warm offices and a friendly empathetic smile from a woman as she explained the social services she could immediately place at our disposal. When we went into the Weigand Homeless Resource Center on the women's shelter side, again we were met with kindness and gentle questions about where we were from and what could be done to help us.
Even as I felt like even more of a charlatan, I could not help but be moved by the genuine concern from both HOST folks and those from Catholic Community Services offered us as we came in from the rain.