By Ally Bergmann, Program Coordinator

While traveling on vacation, Drug Free Manatee Program Coordinator Ally Bergmann discovered a concentrated community “market” designed specifically for homeless residents and people suffering from addiction.

Salt Lake City has found a way to bring their services to those residents that need them the most.

Recently, while on vacation in Salt Lake City, Utah, my family and I were taking a mini-tour of the city via the public rail transport. We boarded the tram at Temple Square planning to visit the Old Greek Town district. During the short ride, we saw a teeming mass of (what appeared to be) homeless humanity. Some were visibly impaired by drugs and/or alcohol, others were sleeping on the sidewalks, some were sitting quietly with their shopping carts full of all their worldly possessions, and still others were wandering around being social with one another. There were even a few camping tents pitched on the sidewalks.

As we passed the area (about two to three city blocks long), I noticed one of the streets was lined with different tents – the kind seen at farmers’ markets, craft fairs, and the like. Of course, my interest was piqued. I told the rest of our group that I thought this must be a needle-exchange area and I whipped out my phone to Google the info.

Sure enough, it was a needle-exchange area for IV drug users; Utah’s first (and only), in fact. The Utah Harm Reduction Coalition started collecting used needles and handing out new ones (along with cotton balls, twist ties, and “cookers”) in December, right after needle exchanges became legal in Utah. While needle exchanges are controversial (some believe it encourages drug use), they have been proven to reduce public health threats like HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C, protecting users and non-users alike while saving tax payers the money needed to treat those indigent patients for serious, chronic conditions.

Not only are clean needles provided to addicts, but homeless residents and those suffering from mental health disorders are also offered goods and services provided by the city.

The area where the exchange takes place is considered a “rundown, seedy region” by residents and known for its “tent cities” – settings for drug sales and use. My Google search revealed that despite the negative connotation, community leaders have transferred services to the area in order to offer help. Salt Lake City Police officers, social workers and case managers come out to the area to meet folks and offer their services. They call the “market” the Community Connection Center and offer help to homeless individuals and families in Salt Lake City.

This is a program that takes community policing to a whole new level. The social workers and case workers are not just partners to the Salt Lake City Police Department – they are employees of the police department.

They act as liaisons between law enforcement and community services by providing intermittent, short term therapeutic intervention, care coordination between agencies, transportation assistance, family re-unification, housing assistance, employment resources, and navigation of the behavioral health system. They have already reached thousands of people in the 12 months they have been in operation, engaging 104 people in treatment with a waiting list of 115.

The police officers are trained in crisis intervention specifically to identify and help those experiencing a mental health crisis and are able to identify a variety of mental health disorders. There is also a commitment on the part of law enforcement to arrest dealers and offer addicts treatment instead of jail time. Like the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, the Salt Lake City Police Department understands that you cannot arrest your way out of an addiction crisis.

I find this type of community partnership hopeful and amazing (as an employee of Drug Free Manatee, I know what amazing community partnerships look like). I will continue to follow the achievements of the Community Connection Center in Salt Lake City and to cheer them on from afar. Who knows, perhaps we can borrow some of their ideas down here in little ol’ Bradenton, Florida.