Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — To a crowd of hundreds of homeless providers and stakeholders Wednesday, homeless advocate Pamela Atkinson described what she saw on the streets the day before Operation Rio Grande launched Aug. 14.

Among people too "sick" to stand up and walk to get the sandwiches she was handing out, Atkinson said she saw "a half-dozen shooting up as I went by," and "nine drug deals in action."

"They were so bold," she said. "One of my homeless friends buying drugs — he heard my voice ... and he looked up and he said, 'Oh, hi Pamela how are you?' And the drug dealer turned around and said, 'Hey Pamela how are you?'

"And I said, 'Well, I — I'm all right, but I've got something better than what you've got. I've got peanut butter and jelly sandwiches'," Atkinson continued, "which caused the drug dealer to laugh heartily as if that was so much better. And they said, 'That's fine but no thanks,' and they continued boldly dealing drugs."

Atkinson's story was met with laughs from attendees at the state's 14th annual homelessness summit, held at the Sheraton Hotel in Salt Lake City Wednesday.

But as she spoke, OrgCode CEO Iain De Jong — a nationally renowned homelessness expert who presented later that afternoon — criticized Operation Rio Grande in a scathing tweet.

"Utah, you had a great reputation for your work to #endhomelessness & #housingfirst - blowing that all (with) Operation Rio Grande," De Jong wrote.

De Jong went on to tweet — as Atkinson along with Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, House Speaker Greg Hughes and Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, lauded Operation Rio Grande — that a "panel of privileged white people talking homelessness & addiction is clearly about social control, not social service."

Most local homeless providers have supported Operation Rio Grande, the two-year effort to root out crime around the Road Home's downtown shelter, which has resulted in over 1,500 arrests. They say the operation hasn't detracted from their service numbers but has rather made it safer for people seeking help.

Atkinson said she has started to see some of her "homeless friends" who have been camping and avoiding the area return after Operation Rio Grande.

Treatment for drug addiction is also a focus of the operation, with about 240 new treatment beds expected to open by the end of the year. Cox also said the third phase of the operation — meant to connect people to work opportunities — will be implemented in coming weeks.

But as Atkinson spoke, she also acknowledged the difficulties homeless service providers have had as Utah and its capital city continue to grapple with homelessness year after year.

"I think many of us in this room over the years were getting frustrated, that the problem just seemed to be getting worse for our homeless friends rather better despite all the incredible efforts of many service providers," she said.

The day also marked the release of the state's 2017 Comprehensive Report on Homelessness, showing some gains but overall reflects continuing trends that homelessness remains a deep-rooted issue in Utah.

This year, about 2,850 Utahns were identified as homeless during the point-in-time count in January — a 1.6 percent increase from the 2016 numbers, according to the report.

Aside from Operation Rio Grande, Cox reflected on the past year's efforts to improve homeless services in Utah and Salt Lake City — including the turmoil over selecting sites for the three future homeless resource centers.

"There have been some bumps," he said. "But I have to say Operation Rio Grande is critical to the new resource centers. We had to get this right now so (the vision) could come to pass."

Cox applauded state, city and county leaders for "collaborating in ways we haven't before" and for making tough, "unpopular" decisions to transform the state's homeless system with three new homeless resource centers, slated to open in June 2019.

"I don't know if all of these problems can ever be solved, but I know if it can be done anywhere, it can be done in the state of Utah," Cox said, because despite political leanings, "people are willing to come together to help people."

Jonathan Hardy, director of housing and community development for the Utah Department of Workforce Services, highlighted some "good signs" featured in the 2017 report but acknowledged homelessness remains a tough state issue further troubled with increasing housing prices.

"Not everything is a rosy picture," he said, but he added he believes the report shows "we have a pretty adaptive system."

Some of those encouraging figures, Hardy said, include a decline in the average number of nights spent homeless. In Salt Lake County, that average for people in the emergency shelter and transitional housing declined from 94 nights in 2015 to 74 nights in 2016, according to the report.

"These are challenges we've faced for a long time as a system, and we've been up to the challenge so far, so I'm encouraged," Hardy said. "It shows we're still doing our jobs and trying to do things even under difficult circumstances."