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Adam Fondren, Deseret News
Trenton Medina, left, asks a question of Chris Accord of the Department of Workforce Services on Rio Grande Street in Salt Lake on Monday, Oct. 16, 2017. Rio Grande Street's "safe space" will soon be open to only those who have a DWS-issued ID card.

SALT LAKE CITY — Frustrated by a national homelessness expert's criticism of Operation Rio Grande, Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes is firing back, questioning whether the expert should continue to be a consultant on the city's new homeless centers.

"I'm not impressed at all," Hughes said Monday of OrgCode CEO Iain De Jong, who last week called the state, city and county effort to root out lawlessness around Salt Lake City's most troubled neighborhood "misguided."

The speaker said he would debate De Jong "anytime, anywhere," questioning if De Jong "truly thinks what was going on in that area was better than what we have today."

Hughes also said De Jong used "personal attacks" and "stereotypical accusations" when De Jong tweeted that a "panel of privileged white people talking homelessness and addiction is clearly about social control, not social justice."

Hughes joined Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, homeless advocate Pamela Atkinson and others on that panel last week as De Jong tweeted criticisms.

"As personal as he made it and as critical as he was ... It doesn't speak well to whatever contract he has or whatever expertise he's being asked to bring to our effort," Hughes said.

"I don't know, you'll have to ask Shelter the Homeless how they feel about him, but I find that to be beyond the pale that he's come in to (consult) on those resource centers that we need — I need, the taxpayer needs — to be done right, and we're depending on him? After what he just said about all of the efforts we're going through right now? I don't know. My confidence level's not high, I'll tell you that."

Shelter the Homeless board chairman Harris Simmons did not return a request for comment Monday, but De Jong said in an interview that any concerns that OrgCode's contract with the resource centers' owner would be jeopardized by his comments would come "secondary" to him speaking from "a place of justice."

Regardless, De Jong said his company has met contractual obligations and "there would be no justification for seeing our contract cease, though that may be a moot point given the majority of the work we have been asked to complete is done."

De Jong, a consultant from Canada who presented at the state's annual homelessness summit, lambasted Operation Rio Grande for "criminalizing homelessness and addiction."

De Jong said he wasn't surprised by Hughes' frustrations, adding that "if I was in their position and expended as much political capital as they have, it would be difficult to hear criticism."

"My hope is that rather than examining the feedback I've provided from a place of anger or distrust, that they understand it's actually me trying to lend my expertise to help them achieve better results," De Jong said.

De Jong expanded on his criticisms in a blog post on his website Monday, calling the estimated $67 million operations "draconian" and "a huge, expensive step backward for a community that used to give the rest of the nation so much hope" with its Housing First model.

"If Operation Rio Grande had designated just more than half of the money to house as the first step, 900 of the most vulnerable people could have received a $700 subsidy to assist with rent every month for 5 years, and still have money to assist them to stay housed through case management," De Jong wrote.

De Jong also said though "tough on crime is great politics," it creates "more barriers" for people who are addicted to drugs and also need homeless services when they are slapped with more charges and warrants through Operation Rio Grande.

Arrest records show only a portion of Operation Rio Grande's arrests have been of drug dealers and felons, while the majority are for low-level drug offenders.

"There's this really strange juxtaposition of ideas around cracking down on law and order and 'dangerous criminals,'" he said. "I don't think low-level offenders, people who have warrants related to their drug use are 'dangerous criminals.' By and large, they are people who are dealing with the impacts of their addiction dependency and it is both naive and reckless to not take a step back and understand what really drives substance abuse."

But Hughes said "the term data is like snake oil; it can mean anything," and he argued "it's a little puzzling to me if people are just defining hardened criminals or the worst of the worst by whether they're a felon or not."

"I would like for people to understand that we embrace the idea you cannot arrest your way out of anything," Hughes said. "But you don't have to have two competing drug cartels competing for market share either. And when people commit crimes we've got to have a community and a climate where we do have consequences for committing crimes."

In that way, Hughes said Operation Rio Grande has helped "restore social order" in the area — while not ignoring housing or treatment. Hughes added that the state has "not been asleep at the wheel," noting that "tens of millions" of state dollars have been appropriated for such programs before Operation Rio Grande but "we were still seeing things getting markedly worse."

Prior to Operation Rio Grande, Salt Lake City was getting national attention after a string of violence this summer.

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"People were being bludgeoned to death with bricks," Hughes said, referring to a man who police say killed another with a 53-pound paver stone this summer.

"Let's just be honest with ourselves about what was happening out there," Hughes continued. "It was not good, it could not continue the way it was. We had to do something different than what we were doing. I just don't think (De Jong) appreciates the level of (that effort)."

Hughes acknowledged that the 240 treatment beds planned to be opened by the end of the year are not enough "but we're working on that. It's a continuing effort."