SALT LAKE CITY — Following a week of arrests around Salt Lake's downtown homeless shelter, state leaders say they are ready to begin the treatment stage of the three-phase plan to clean up the beleaguered neighborhood.
While new detox, substance abuse and mental health treatment beds to bolster existing resources won't become available until the end of the month, organizers of the initiative dubbed Operation Rio Grande said Friday that social workers are increasing outreach to those who are homeless while assessments are getting underway with the men and women who have been booked into the Salt Lake County Jail.
In the meantime, activists are decrying the multijurisdictional effort as "a war on the homeless," while two state lawmakers raise concerns about displaced crime and camping moving into surrounding neighborhoods.
The two-year plan aims to stabilize the volatile neighborhood by targeting criminals through a sustained police presence while increasing services for the growing homeless population in the area.
Stakeholders have said that as part of Operation Rio Grande's second phase, 37 treatment beds are being put in place for those who are addicted or mentally ill — House Speaker Greg Hughes said Friday they are literally under construction — while as many as 200 total treatment beds could be established in coming months.
Phase three, which will focus on job training and employment, is still in the planning stages.
Starting Friday, staffers from the Utah Department of Human Services began what will be at least two weeks of assessments of individuals booked into jail as part of Operation Rio Grande, executive director Ann Williamson said. Meanwhile, state social workers have helped this week in both office and outreach efforts by the Community Connections Center near the shelter.
As he wound his way through Pioneer Park on Friday afternoon, Mike Jones, a Community Connections Center social worker, was met by a range of responses. As he approached, one woman greeted Jones cheerfully by name, announcing she intended to follow up next week with his invitation to come by the center. Another launched into a string of complaints about the surge in police activity and arrests.
"It's understandable that they're frustrated," Jones said of the woman upset by the law enforcement effort. "Some people who aren't using drugs and are homeless, and don't want to be in the shelter, they want to just be left alone and be able to sleep, and they're not able to."
Jones listened patiently as Kathy Malin described how her new sleeping bag, her clothes and other belongings had been scooped up in the Salt Lake County Health Department's cleanup, her concerns echoed by others in the group she was sitting with.
"I've got nothing right now," Malin insisted, while others with her chimed in about the wave of arrests.
For interactions like those, Jones said he strives to listen and reassure that the operation will bring in more resources and "a light at the end of the tunnel."
Others, like Kimberly Yetter, are happy to see Jones. Yetter, who has been homeless since a devastating illness uprooted her life last year, sat on a blanket in the shade with several other people as she chatted with Jones. She claims he is "the only person I'll go to" as she seeks services.
"He cares about us, he gives a ...," Yetter said, chuckling as she cut off an expletive at the end of her statement. "He's always checking up. He's a good man."
Social workers like Jones have increased the time spent during outreach visits this week and remained on call to join police during their encounters with people in the area. Lana Dalton, the center's director, said earlier this week that the number of people coming in to the center has been down during the operation.
Hughes, an outspoken force behind attempts to clean up the turbulent Rio Grande neighborhood, said that after just a week, the operation has had a greater and more visible impact than anticipated.
While increased treatment options are still in the works, the Draper Republican said deteriorating conditions in the area spurred the state to begin the policing phase of the initiative as soon as space was available in the Salt Lake County Jail. He noted that it is easier for state government to arrange for needed jail beds, which are in government facilities, than treatment beds, which are in private facilities.
"What we're hoping to see is that the criminal element can't survive under the kind of scrutiny where we are trying to find out the individual stories of every single person, trying to restore that hope and dignity to every single person," Hughes said.
Additionally, Hughes said that as people have been unable to buy drugs as easily this week, they have become more amenable to treatment. He emphasized that challenges in Rio Grande and throughout Utah fit into a national epidemic of opioid and heroin use.
Since Monday, an average of 150 officers from multiple agencies have patrolled the area around the clock, saying they are targeting criminal activity in the area. During the operation's first four days, officers made 282 arrests, including the 53 made Thursday, Department of Public Safety Commissioner Keith Squires reported.
While exact figures weren't known, Squires confirmed that some of those arrests were of people who were booked into jail earlier this week, released and arrested again.
The week's arrests represent a mixture of people picked up for outstanding warrants, new offenses and a combination of the two, Squires said. Twenty-two of the arrests involved felony allegations, and 112 involved drugs or paraphernalia, he said.
Of the 282 arrests, there have been 105 releases from the jail, according to Justin Hoyal, chief deputy of the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office.
In a joint statement Friday, Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, and Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, applauded the collaborative effort that has made Operation Rio Grande possible, but they raised concern about an apparent diaspora of homeless individuals moving into other neighborhoods.
"As disruption efforts continue near Rio Grande, individuals have begun camping in the adjacent neighborhoods, particularly along North Temple to the west of I-15," Escamilla and Romero wrote. "The residents of these communities are now facing the very same issues the actions at Rio Grande set out to address. These neighborhoods must be included in the conversation around how to avoid shifting this crisis from one neighborhood to another."
Both Hughes and Squires emphasized Friday that anyone who believes they are seeing new activity in their areas connected to the operation — whether it is drug crime that should be investigated or homeless campers who can be connected to service providers — should contact their local police department.
Hughes said that while it was anticipated that people would move to other areas in response to the operation, law enforcement has been prepared to track and respond to them, and that the displacement has been smaller than expected. He did not clarify which areas of the valley are being affected.
Additionally, the activist group Utahns Against Police Brutality released a statement Friday accusing city and state leaders of trying to appease businesses and improve their image through the initiative.
"The homeless people who reside in the Rio Grande district are powerless — without money, resources or a place to call their own. Yet the police, elected officials, and the business community have declared these suffering people public enemy No. 1," the statement indicated.
The group has scheduled a rally against the operation for Tuesday evening.