SALT LAKE CITY — On a warm, sunny Wednesday evening, people lounged around in Jefferson Park. Some rode or walked with bicycles. Others sat on the grass.
Music drifted out of a mobile speaker, as park-goers talked and hung out.
The community park was bustling... for all the wrong reasons, if you ask the people who live next to it.
"Lots of homelessness, lots of drug use, and lots of drug dealing," said Matt Engle, who can see the park from his home.
He and another neighbor explained they frequently see drug deals, and drug overdoses. They'll find needles next to human feces. The trash bins were overflowing on Wednesday, with more garbage littering the ground.
Engle can laundry list the things he's seen just recently, captured on surveillance and his phone: A man using his driveway as a bathroom, a drug deal gone wrong that led to screaming and fighting, and a police bust that ended with arrests.
Other neighbors chimed in with the things they've seen.
A man who lives across from the park told Fox 13 he won't take his 2-year old son there anymore to play on the playground. He's afraid his son will find a needle or drugs.
One woman said she went outside her home on a Saturday morning to find a man masturbating on her sidewalk, in the open.
Things can get worse as the sun goes down, because Engle said there's no lighting in the park.
"At night it becomes this dark, black pit," he said. "You really don't know what's going on there, unless you have the guts to go out there with a flashlight."
Engle said he's lived in the area for half a decade. He and his neighbor both agreed this is the worst they've ever seen it.
"The constant stream of criminal activity in and around Jefferson park has turned the only green space in the ballpark neighborhood into a nightmare," said his neighbor, who didn't want to be identified.
The neighbor asked how children can play when someone is camping under the playground, and questioned how dogs and their owners can take advantage of the off leash hours when human waste, needles and trash are strewn about the park.
They often call police, and said it can take an hour for officers to respond.
"We alone called dispatch almost 30 times in July and only for visible drug use, dealing, and overdoses," he said.
The neighbor called it "exhausting and frustrating."
Gathering in green space
Part of the reason they think Jefferson Park has become a hot spot for criminal activity, is the location within the Ballpark area. It sits in between the two new homeless resource centers, which each opened within the last year.
Last week, businesses near one of the resource centers detailed to Fox 13 the issues they're seeing similar to what Jefferson Park neighbors are experiencing.
The park is also positioned near a TRAX station.
"It's a natural flow to seek some green space that you can shoot up and deal drugs," Engle said. "This is the only green space in our area."
Salt Lake City Police offered up an additional potential explanation.
"Ever since Rio Grande, ever since they've kind of started changing the way the system works, we're obviously going to see people moving around," said Salt Lake City Police Detective Michael Ruff.
He's referring to Operation Rio Grande, a state-run initiative that aimed to crack down on criminal activity on Rio Grande Street, where a chunk of Salt Lake City's homeless resources used to be concentrated.
Det. Ruff explained that their department tracks violent crime and property crime, and uses those statistics to determine where to put officers.
If they see a spike in a certain area, he said they'll direct resources to that spot to help the problem.
In taking a look at the district that includes the Ballpark area and Jefferson Park, Detective Ruff said statistics show that certain crimes like theft from vehicles, has gone up in the past year. However, he said other crimes in the area have gone down.
He emphasized that simply being homeless is not a crime, nor is gathering in a park like Jefferson Park.
"They're allowed to hang out in parks, and that's something that they're certainly allowed to do" he said. "Now, if there's other illegal activity going on, that may be a different story."
A brainstorming session
Salt Lake City Public Services hosted a meeting with residents late last week, to talk about issues at the park and come up with some ideas to move forward.
Kristin Riker, the Salt Lake City Public Services Deputy Director; Public Lands, said their crew is out at the park every day to clean up trash.
The city homeless outreach team also recently placed two portable toilets down the street from the park, to give those experiencing homelessness a place to use the restroom (which caused a controversy with local residents).
Riker said they want to take steps to make sure people feel safe and welcome in their parks.
"When we hear that there's negative activities, or things that are happening in park that are keeping people from using it, it's really hard to hear," she said.
Lighting seemed to take top priority on the list of potential upgrades. Riker explained that they're going to work with the utilities department to add street lighting in a couple of areas, and they'll work with Rocky Mountain Power to install lights in other parts of the park as well.
"One of the other things we can do, though, is try to help with park activation," she said. "And so we talked about looking at adding a walking path and pedestrian lighting in the park."
Riker also talked about the possibility of purchasing soccer goals for the park, to encourage children and adults to use for startup games.
They would like to add more signage around the park that clearly states the hours and indicate when the park is closed.
Riker explained that they expect to install the lighting in the coming weeks. She indicated that other projects, like a walking path, won't take place for a while because it requires planning, design and funding.
Engle said he thinks the solution is going to come from multiple angles. He attended the Public Services virtual meeting, and said he's feeling optimistic.
"I think that space, that green space, could be really beautiful," he said, adding, "and make a really positive impact on this area."