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Rio Grande Cafe Owner Says Homeless Plan a Win for Neighborhood

As Salt Lake City and County officials move forward with a plan to spread out homeless services, one historic restaurant owner in downtown Salt Lake City says he’s finally getting a break.

The historic Rio Grande Depot houses the Utah State Historical Society, an occasional winter farmer’s market and the Rio Grande Café. The café shares the block with The Road Home shelter, where hundreds of people gather each day. Pete Henderson opened the restaurant in 1981. It’s American-Mexican comfort food in a historic setting. No Mexican décor, says Henderson. Except for the 6-foot-long taco hanging from the ceiling. Inside the taco is a paper mache woman wearing ruby slippers.

“Yes, that’s our chick-in taco,” he says with a grin.

As long as he can remember, Henderson says the neighborhood has harbored the destitute and down-and-out. But, he says the sheer volume of people and the number of issues they struggle with have grown. Henderson says a man nearly died in his bathroom recently from a heroin overdose.

“Pedestrian access to these areas has for all intents and purposes has been shut off because you cannot or you would not be advised to pass through Rio Grande to the mall for instance,” Henderson says.

Henderson says his business is down nearly 40 percent since the recession. He recognizes the crime can often be attributed to drug dealers and criminals who hide amongst the masses.

“We could do much, much better for the homeless,” he says. “And at the same time, we can start taking steps to protect this neighborhood.”

Henderson says the imminent plan to break up the population is a big win for neighborhood residents and the homeless population who are desperate for services. 

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