When Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox called and asked me to help with Operation Rio Grande, I couldn’t say no. The call came during a busy and challenging time, as we were in the all-consuming final weeks of the renovation of the Vivint Smart Home Arena, and the start of the Jazz season was just weeks away. I too often had expressed frustration with the homeless crisis emanating from Rio Grande Street to not do my part when asked.
The lieutenant governor explained phases one and two of Operation Rio Grande and then asked me to lead phase three, titled “The Dignity of Work.” He went on to explain that this phase is the component “the governor is most excited about” because it would be a public-private partnership focused on developing long-term plans for helping the homeless transition into the workforce.
In the weeks since that initial meeting, we have built a team of members with diverse backgrounds and perspectives who have met regularly to study the issues and develop recommendations. Through this process, we have been supported by able men and women at the Department of Workforce Services, who will be integral to the Dignity of Work efforts moving forward.
Our team established guiding principles that included focusing on solutions rather than political challenges, avoiding replicating existing programs and services and a belief that work is foundational to self-reliance and to restoring dignity to one’s life.
As this effort begins, we acknowledge there are some individuals who may not be able to transition to successful employment due to mental or physical limitations. Others have debilitating substance abuse problems that need to be overcome before re-entry into the job force.
Despite this, we believe work should be a key component of any program aimed at helping individuals experiencing homelessness. We know the satisfaction and confidence that comes through hard work and that life is more fulfilling when we have a sense of accomplishment. Asking someone to do something isn’t inappropriate or mean-spirited — it is vital. By failing to ask others to work, we run the risk of denying a person the dignity that comes through effort and accomplishment. Because of this, we encourage all involved in helping these individuals in need to establish a culture of work.
To help foster this culture of work, we are launching several initiatives to facilitate growth and healthy habit formation among those utilizing services in the Rio Grande area. Participation in these initiatives will be optional and will include a morning faith-based devotional that will be uplifting, daily workshops focused on life skills, vocational training and one-on-one mentoring and supportive employment for those who re-enter the workforce.
In addition, the Department of Workforce Services is ramping up its team and will add employment counselors who can be on-site and provide support to those individuals who can and want to work. These employment counselors will develop individual plans and goals for each person as well as ongoing communication and follow-up. Through public-private partnerships, we will provide internships and “job-a-day” opportunities that allow for personalized mentorship and guidance. The aim will be to develop healthy routines by encouraging the behaviors and values employers seek.
The Dignity of Work initiative is a long-term effort that will require the help and support of the business community, faith-based organizations and our public partners. It will require patience and humility as we all learn together. While we may never fully prevent homelessness, we believe by working together we can develop a plan and culture that represents the best of our community.
We have seen time and time again that when Utahns come together we can accomplish remarkable things. Operation Rio Grande is breaking down barriers and bringing Utahns together. We in the business community must come together and do our part. For businesses and volunteers interested in being part of the Dignity of Work phase, visit operationriogrande.utah.gov.
Steve Starks is president of Larry H. Miller Sports & Entertainment.