Over the past year, I have watched and read all the news surrounding Operation Rio Grande. I have seen addicts paraded in front of cameras alluding to how many success stories there are of people in Homeless Drug Court and treatment programs, mostly in Salt Lake County. As someone who works in the field of addiction outside of Salt Lake County, this pleases me on one hand and disturbs me on the other.
It occurs to me that these stories, while positive in nature, also belie and invalidate the complexity of addiction and treatment. I would be willing to bet any reporter an expensive lunch that most, if not all, people interviewed have a long and varied treatment history. Most, if not all, have been in and out of private or public programs for years before ending up homeless.
The problem with presenting these stories with a rose-colored filter is it continues the myth that addictions are simply a matter of willpower and that when handed a treatment program, all can and do recover without any glitches. In fact, addiction is a brain disease, or more accurately, brain damage that takes potentially numerous programs and a number of supports within the community to overcome. It is a disservice at best, and an outright falsehood at worst, to allude that the sweep of addicts from the Rio Grande and their placement in treatment programs is in and of itself the "cure."
In each addict's life, there have been numerous counselors, programs, incarcerations and interventions that have previously taken place. The good thing is while addicts may "fail" a program, they cannot unlearn or unhear what they have learned and heard over the years, which will have the biggest cumulative impact on whether they will be successful in another program.
Utah did not fully expand Medicaid and is now playing catch up with this population of homeless and addicted. Most programs not under a county umbrella go woefully underfunded, and Medicaid, in its attempt to rein in treatment programs which sprang up at an alarming rate with Obamacare, has mandated that those who use Medicaid must go through their local county for treatment. This has served to successfully close those programs preying on the addicted as well as shut down "client brokers" who are the bottom feeders of the treatment world. It has also served to keep addicts on long county wait lists where many will relapse and many will die waiting for overrun and understaffed county programs. One would think that the counties and Medicaid would reach out to the private sector for help, but "absolute power corrupts absolutely," and no one wants to give up their piece of the pie.1 comment on this story
If we as a community and a state want to truly address the addiction issues and the deaths of so many of our citizens, then it is time to have an open and honest conversation about what that is going to take in the long run. Sweeping a population out of a part of the city to further gentrify that area under the guise of "helping addicts" only pushes vulnerable populations to other counties where the lack of funding and the lack of choice for programs will continue to be a driving force in the problems — and deaths — of our citizens. Utah can do better than this.