SALT LAKE CITY — Almost exactly one year ago, Amy Daeschel, 40, was arrested for outstanding warrants the while living for two years on "the block" — where drug addicts and drug dealers would mingle among Utah's homeless population in Salt Lake City's most infamous neighborhood.
It was her seventh arrest while in the throes of opiate addiction, a cycle that she said started with pain pills prescribed after a routine surgery, spiraled into heroin and methamphetamine use, and would continue with each arrest. Each time, she said she would spend a couple months in jail before she'd be back on the street, sleeping on tarps.
She said she wouldn't sleep at the Road Home's downtown shelter because the streets were safer.
"I was alone," Daeschel said. "I had no hope. I was to the point of begging, wishing, praying to God that the next shot would kill me."
But then that seventh arrest happened on Aug. 23, 2017. "This time, it was different," she said.
Daeschel told her story to a room full of state, city and county leaders Tuesday, who gathered in a storefront in The Gateway mall to mark the one-year anniversary of the beginning of Operation Rio Grande — the multiagency effort to root out crime in the Rio Grande neighborhood and to help the state's homeless.
As Daeschel spoke, some in the audience sniffed and wiped away tears. She told of how overdoses almost took her life — twice — even though she had previously lived a "normal life" with a career, a family and faith.
"I was broken. I had nothing," she said.
But Tuesday, now almost a year sober from the date of her seventh arrest, Daeschel said she's now living in her own apartment, works at a Volunteers of America detox center, and volunteers with other recovery programs.
"I know for a fact I would not be alive without Operation Rio Grande," she said.
Daeschel received standing applause from community leaders when she concluded her story, including Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, House Speaker Greg Hughes, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, and top law enforcement leaders — all players in Operation Rio Grande's launch 12 months ago.
The estimated $67 million operation has been lauded as a revolutionary way to root out crime around the downtown homeless shelter — a shift from previous crime sweeps and a more concerted effort to integrate treatment and work opportunities to help connect people to services.
Leaders gathered Tuesday to report on successes of Operation Rio Grande's first year — but to also identify the shortfalls.
"There is no 'mission accomplished' banner hanging behind us," Cox said, noting that along the way leaders have found "problems, roadblocks and impediments we knew would be there."
For decades, community leaders have tried to clean up Pioneer Park and the Rio Grande neighborhood, Cox said — and "it's not something that, again, will be solved last year or this year or next year."
"But the important thing for me is we're making progress," he said.
Some of the successes:
• Part one crime (more serious felonies) in the Rio Grande neighborhood had decreased by 44 percent, according to Salt Lake police estimates.
• Salt Lake County added 243 new residential treatment beds to target drug addiction.
• About 784 people have entered treatment through Salt Lake County contracts, including 132 who have entered through a new drug court program.
• Road Home average shelter stays have decreased from 48.5 days in 2017 to 43.5 days in 2018.
• About 106 people have become employed with the support of the operation's employment counselors, according to the Department of Workforce Services.
But state, city and county leaders also admit there are areas that need improvement, such as ongoing "dispersion" with crime being pushed into other areas of Salt Lake City, jail capacity, safety issues inside the downtown shelter, long waitlists and unmet demand for treatment, lack of capacity for criminal justice treatment programs, and lack of health coverage for the needy.
So while officials acknowledged successes over the past year, they also discussed the various weaknesses and discussed what will come next for Operation Rio Grande over the next 12 months.
Biskupski and McAdams — who have both long been advocates of full Medicaid expansion — advocated for more Medicaid dollars to help address long waitlists for treatment and to expand mental health care options for people who continue to struggle. The two Democratic mayors have sought full Medicaid expansion for years, while state leaders, wary of budget uncertainties, have been reluctant to go beyond approving partial Medicaid expansion.
Daeschel, too, advocated for more focus on treatment.
"We need more funding, more nonprofit treatment-based facilities that focus on the issues, not the behavior," she said. "Facilities that focus on the client and not the bottom line."
"We need to rally as a community," she said. "The epidemic is here, whether we want to avoid it or not."
Operation Rio Grande has been a good start, but "we've just scratched the surface," she continued. "This is just one program of many we need to roll out to be able to even make a dent in this problem."
The calls for more come as Utah approaches November's election when voters will decide whether to implement full Medicaid expansion. Either way, however, state officials expect more health care dollars, as a result of the partial expansion the Utah Legislature passed during the 2018 general session.
With that extra funding, Salt Lake County officials plan to expand the number of beds in October, and also to meet with the Department of Workforce Services to address the shortage of detox resources and discuss the possibility of making social detox a service covered under Medicaid.
For treatment options, County officials also plan to expand the sober living network by meeting with more eligible sober living providers, as well as forming a steering committee to increase capacity for structured criminal justice treatment programs.
A new Volunteers of America detox and residential treatment center is also slated to open next year to increase treatment resources, officials said.
Other next steps include continued deployment of public safety officials to target dispersed crime, enhanced security inside the Road Home's shelter, coordination between agencies to address jail bed capacity, and continued Department of Public Safety attacks on drug cartel networks.
For work opportunities, Department of Workforce services officials laid out plans to begin more programs to connect job seekers to jobs, as well as coordinate with drug court programs or treatment providers to help people who might not want change or aren't ready for work.
State officials also discussed the June 2019 closure of the Road Home's downtown shelter, including ongoing safety concerns and plans to work with the shelter's owner, Shelter the Homeless, to integrate the three new homeless resource centers under into Operation Rio Grande programs.
As for the operation's estimated $67 million cost, the budget includes both repurposed funds that were already allocated to existing state agency budgets and new revenue to the tune of about $15 million in one-time funds that was allocated by the Utah Legislature this year.10 comments on this story
Cox said that he was somewhat "concerned" that both Niederhauser, R-Sandy, and Hughes, R-Draper, who have been faithful supporters of Operation Rio Grande, will be leaving their posts at the end of the terms this year, so there will need to be efforts to maintain the legislature's commitment when the time comes to ask for continued revenue next session.
"It will be important to keep that continuity where we can," Cox said, nothing Tuesday would not mark the last Operation Rio Grande meeting.
"We are not finished," Cox said. "We are moving forward."