SALT LAKE CITY — Amy Smith said when she was 25 she had a great job with an $85,000 salary, owned a $300,000 house, drove a $40,000 car that was paid off and traveled all over the country.
Ten years later, now 35, Smith sat alone with her only belongings — a blanket and a backpack — next to the Jordan River Parkway on Thursday.
She had been sober of heroin for five years. But not anymore.
"It's hard, you know," she said, looking down, her eyes brimming with tears. "Everything just kind of fell apart."
Smith said before Operation Rio Grande began nearly two weeks ago, she had been sleeping on the streets near the Road Home's downtown shelter, though she refused to sleep inside the shelter because "it's horrible in there."
"You have to worry about people punching you in the face or cutting your pockets open when you're sleeping," she said.
Her problems started when she got laid off, Smith said. She spent more than a year trying to find another job, but she never got any offers, fell into depression and then turned from prescription pills to heroin.
On top of all that, Smith said she was abused and has since been couch surfing and living on the streets.
"I think about how my life was 10 years ago, and I never gave money to charity. I'd see people in my position, and I'm like, 'Why don't they just go out and get a job,' you know? And it's just really sad. It's never that straightforward. It's never that easy."
On Thursday, unable to find a couch to crash on, Smith figured she'd end up sleeping next to the Jordan River — a few yards away from the North Temple bridge over the river — wanting to stay away from Operation Rio Grande's heavy police presence.
"You can't stay downtown anymore," Smith said. "I understand the reason why they're doing what they're doing. But at the same time, when you push people out of the area, it just spreads, which nobody wants. It will move somewhere else. It's just a matter of time."
That's the fear of some Salt Lake City residents — like Mike Harman, a Poplar Grove resident who said he's seen an influx of campers in west-side neighborhoods, parks and along the Jordan River since the beginning of Operation Rio Grande.
"I've always seen people, but it's definitely become more pronounced," Harman said, worried that people who need the services offered in the Rio Grande neighborhood are actually being driven away.
But officials, including Department of Public Safety Commissioner Keith Squires and Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown, said they'd expected the "spider webbing" effect in wake of Operation Rio Grande's first phase, and that their officers are closely tracking drug dealers and any impact of camping in surrounding neighborhoods.
"We're concerned, too," said Brown, who toured the Jordan River on Wednesday.
Camps along the Jordan River and in parks are not a new problem — but Brown said his officers are noting a number of people moving out from the Rio Grande and into the neighborhood. He said his officers are working to get people off the streets and connected to services.
As of Thursday, the chief said social workers and officers with the city's Community Connection Center helped 532 people "with some sort of service" since the beginning of Operation Rio Grande.
Of those 532, 81 were as a result of social worker outreach in the field and 451 came through the front door of the center, Brown said.
"There are people that are fearful of the uniform and of being arrested, but I have to tell you, the men and women of Salt Lake City Police are some of the most compassionate police officers in the country," Brown said, noting that so far his officers have only cited two people for violating camping ordinances. He said their priority is to give them a better place to sleep.
Just a few yards away from Smith, Nicole Goodman and her 16-year-old son slept next to two friends in a makeshift camp along the river. Goodman woke from a nap under a tarp, with food wrappers, toilet paper and other trash strewn about.
As her friends slept, Goodman said she normally camps on "the block" but came to the Jordan River last week because the police "made us leave. And they're even bugging us down here."
"I think it's stupid; they should just leave us alone," she said.
Her son, who declined to be named, was covered head to foot in dirt. He had sores on his face and a wound on his hand he feared was infected.
His mother said "like six cops" were talking to people along the Jordan River on Wednesday, but she stayed away from their camp until the officers left. She said she'll refuse if they ask her to leave. "They can give me a ticket, what else are they going to do? It's like, where am I supposed to go?"
Brown said his officers are working hard to "accommodate" and give campers options, such as a bed at the shelter or connection to a social worker.
"We cannot arrest our way out of this," Brown said. "Being homeless is not a crime — we're here to help."
Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, and Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, issued a statement Friday urging neighborhoods to be "included in the conversation around how to avoid shifting this crisis from one neighborhood to another." Escamilla said Thursday many of her constituents remain concerned about Operation Rio Grande's impact, however, she credited state, city and county leaders with being "responsive" to their concerns.
However, Operation Rio Grande's phase two — treatment and detox beds for the addicted — will take several weeks to come online, so some people will likely have to wait a while before any new resources become available.
In the meantime, if residents notice any increased camping in their neighborhoods or parks, Brown urged them to call his police department at 801-799-3000.
A community meeting for west-side residents concerned about Operation Rio Grande is slated for Friday at 6 p.m. at the Saint Patrick Catholic Church, 1058 W. 400 South.