Four years ago I decided that I needed to better understand the Rio Grande neighborhood and what people experiencing homelessness went through as they sought services here. So I left my wallet and phone at home and went to live as if I were homeless for four days.
While four days is too short a time to really understand the experience of being homeless, it did give me some valuable insights.
I learned that neither the law, the police nor our public officials had any control of the Rio Grande neighborhood. Drugs and dealers were the only ones with authority.
I watched a non-stop market for drugs that used the homeless as shields and society’s neglect to flourish. I saw parents pushing strollers buy drugs. I watched college-aged kids who were obviously not homeless buy drugs. I watched people of all walks of life buy drugs.
I saw real-life zombies: people so strung out that they lost any perception of their surroundings. They shuffled aimlessly, head down, on sidewalks and in the road.
In fact, much of this happened under the watchful eye of children, whose playground was only separated by a fence from the most disgusting things I have seen in my life.
This was Salt Lake City.
I have seen much of the world and I have spent time in many of its urban areas, but I had never seen such depravity as I witnessed on our own doorstep.
I felt anger. I was upset that we had yielded authority in our city to those who trafficked in human misery and suffering. I was appalled that we were doing it in a neighborhood that was so vital in helping our most vulnerable populations.
Rather than offering people help, we were condemning them to a pit of despair.
Fortunately, after four years I am pleased to say that things are changing.
One, largely because of relentless efforts by Mayor Ben McAdams, children no longer have a front-row seat to the worst of drugs and violence in our state. Mayor McAdams has also kicked off important changes to our entire way of addressing homelessness. These changes may not be flashy but they are making a difference and will continue to have benefits for years to come.
And two, a little over a year ago we took our biggest step to reclaiming our streets from drug dealers and thugs with Operation Rio Grande.
Speaker Greg Hughes showed real leadership, concern and courage in spearheading this effort. He was joined in an impressive way by the rest of the Legislature, our governor and city and county officials.
As a result of Operation Rio Grande, our neighborhood is noticeably safer today. Where we once had rates of crime more than two times higher than any other Salt Lake neighborhood, we are now on par with other places. Furthermore, the improvements here have led to a drop in overall crime in Salt Lake City.2 comments on this story
Importantly, these safety improvements mean that our most vulnerable members of society are not condemned to a gauntlet of drugs and crime just to seek necessary services. And they are seeking those services. I’m pleased that homeless service providers are still seeing essentially the same number of clients as before Operation Rio Grande.
No, things are not perfect and there is still work to be done — just last week we had a shooting death in our neighborhood — but we have come a long way. It is worth celebrating this success even as we commit to improving in this important work.