Commemorating Operation Rio Grande’s one-year anniversary last week, public officials were understandably focused on the gains.
One hundred and six formerly homeless people now have jobs, while another 333 have employment plans. The associated Dignity of Work program has combined the private and public sectors in ways that provide hope and opportunity to many who want to re-enter mainstream society.
These are notable accomplishments worthy of applause because they affect the lives of real people.
Also, the area surrounding the Road Home Shelter on Rio Grande Street is noticeably quieter than it was in the summer of 2017 when the area was lawless and dangerous.
But it’s far too soon to hang any “mission accomplished” banners. Despite the successes, many questions remain.
When the crackdown on crime began a year ago, reports came in from several neighborhoods in the valley that the problems formerly afflicting the Rio Grande area had moved elsewhere. Those reports persist. Authorities have uncovered homeless camps in mountainous areas near the city or along the Jordan River.
While the cleanup around Rio Grande Street has been impressive, is law enforcement properly focused on the newly impacted areas? Will efforts continue to provide help to the homeless who, for whatever reason, do not wish to enter shelters or seek help on their own?
Larger questions loom for a year from now when, by law, the Road Home shelter must close and three new homeless “resource” centers begin to operate in various parts of the valley. Those shelters will have a combined bed space much smaller than the Road Home currently has.
Will programs that transition the homeless back into society be sufficiently successful by then to keep emergency needs from overwhelming the capacities of these new shelters? If not, what then? Officials have talked about providing vouchers to participating motels in the event of overcrowding. Is that a viable long-term strategy, especially as the population along the Wasatch Front grows?
We hope politicians will have the integrity to admit where they might have gone wrong and adapt plans as this operation continues.
Because these questions seems so daunting, it may be easy to overlook the positive steps that so far have been made. That would be unfortunate.
For the first time, Salt Lake City’s homeless problem has been properly recognized as a statewide concern. Leadership from the governor and the speaker of the House has helped to combine resources and law enforcement personnel from several jurisdictions, making sustained progress possible.
Unlike previous crackdowns, Operation Rio Grande has been a sustained effort, which promises to revitalize a long-neglected part of the city.16 comments on this story
Critics have cynically branded these efforts as little more than a way to prop up the profits of local businesses at the expense of the downtrodden. But the facts tell a different story.
Those critics likely never visited the area before last August, when restaurants, retail stores and other businesses struggled daily to attract customers amid crime and squalor. A revitalized neighborhood will attract investments that enrich a unique part of the city.
The one-year anniversary of this new effort tells an incomplete version of the story. Only after the new shelters are in place and operating will it become clear whether the current long-term strategy is the best.