The Other Side of Pioneer Park
November 19th, 2008
Every elected Salt Lake City Mayor for the past 30 years has claimed they would "clean up and crack down" on crime in Pioneer Park. Why none can keep their promise.
by Richard Markosian
The main stream local media loves to report on Pioneer park from the perspective of the police forces, the mayors and city leaders. We hear about the stabbings and drug busts and the local news eats it up. This outside-in approach provides little insight into the reality of the problems. We decided two years ago to get the other side of the drug and alcohol enforcement policy by listening to the opinions from those who were part of the problem. I brought my video camera and started interviewing homeless people. For a Wendy's cheeseburger, the alcoholics in the park willingly participated. Most of the men I spoke to didn't believe there was anything the authorities could do to stop the drug problem. They told me that (the alcoholics) were being unfairly harassed by the police, while the pushers or the big-time drug dealers got off way too easy.
I found two other men who appeared in much better condition than the alcoholics, who were not interested in fast food but were willing to do on-camera interviews for money. I offered them each $2, which they reluctantly accepted. Marin Byas told me a bit of insight I'll likely never forget: "America is a capitalist society; here you have a demand for drugs because people want relief from the pain of being homeless. And when there is a demand there is always someone to supply."
In my three month investigation, I witnessed police conduct systematic raids on the park. They would lay five men down on their stomachs and cuff their hands, then haul them off to jail. A week later, the five that had been removed were replaced by five new pushers. After a month or two, I would recognize a face from a drug pusher caught in the police raid a month earlier. It was a revolving door. The pushers I met were never local residents. It seems these men hop from city to city dealing drugs.
I finally spoke to the police about this observation last spring. Officer Smalley, who is a bicycle patrol officer, said the dealers will never be dealt with appropriately until Utah has more prison space. Smalley said that Utah judges realize the prisons don't have the capacity to carry out tough sentences for small-time drug pushers so they continue to deal with pushers with a wrist slap. Smalley pointed out that its a matter of simple economics: The money is too good -- there are always people willing to risk going to prison for a month, to make $2,000 a day.
Two Years Later
On Veterans' Day, I returned to the park with my video camera. This time I was more courageous because I had my cameraman, Jonny Glines, who could watch my back. I recorded our entry into the park.
The first group of men I approached, were the best dressed and had the sneaky drug pusher way about them -- always glancing over their shoulder. I asked them if they would agree to an on-camera interview. "$100", they said. I later found a group of people who were willing to talk once they realized I wasn't a cop spying and my intention to simply listen to what they had to say, was genuine.
I spoke to Desere Mike from Elko, Nevada, she told me she came to Salt Lake City with two jobs, then she lost everything to crack. She now sleeps under a bridge on an old carpet. She said that her parents are too busy raising her child to worry about her. Her father is a construction worker who recently lost his job.
The Homeless Monk
The stories I listen to were from people who have lost their ambition to function. I meet a couple of men who were surprisingly coherent and articulate. Demetrius DeLopoulos has the demeanor of a neighborhood florist. He is easy to talk to and people greet him by name as we walk and talk. Demetrius was working an apprenticeship as a heavy machine operator, "I was doing it for the money...I didn't really like it, but the money was good." Demetrius' Father abandoned his family when he was two years old and his mother raised him. Demetrius said his goal in life became to take care of his mother. He says after his mother died when he was 19-years-old, he just stopped working. "I lost all of my ambition". He left the Bronx to do some soul searching. He was a monk in the Hare Krishna monastery for 10 years, then he started traveling.
Now out of jail on drug charges, Demetrius tells me he needs to stay in the homeless shelter for two weeks before he will be able to obtain a valid ID and start job hunting. He tells me alcohol isn't appealing to him, but he has a drug problem: "Drugs provide comfort; they make dealing with homelessness easier."
It is estimated that 75 percent of Utah jails and prisons are occupied by non-violent drug offenders. Detective McGowen of the Salt Lake City Police Department, says that the majority of drug offenders are certainly those who possess and use narcotics rather than those who distribute and sell.
The Utah Prisons are currently filled beyond capacity. There is talk of re-opening up the Oxbow jail for Salt Lake County. The cost of opening this additional jail will be in the tens of millions. The war on drugs costs tax payers an estimated $55 billion each year.
My only conclusion in observing the park and getting the stories from the homeless, is that the practice of filling prisons with people like Desere and Demetrius is an ineffective use of tax payer money. The "war on drugs" is no different than declaring a war on misery. People who are miserable will always use drugs. Rehabilitation for drug users by throwing non-violent people in with very violent criminals defies logic.
Richard Markosian has written two previous articles on Pioneer Park:
new article on Pioneer Park Cameras