Angel Ferdinand, originally from Washington, moved to the Road Home last month despite hearing horror stories of deadly violence on the streets. And her first day in town, she says, an overwhelming pack of people lining up outside the Catholic Community Services wrapped around the block, and another cluster obstructed the entrance.
“You could not get through,” she says. “There were people in the streets, people laying down, people lined up.”
But Operation Rio Grande—a multi-jurisdictional and multifaceted plan to clear criminals who had dealt hard drugs with near impunity—is changing the scene at Salt Lake City’s most fretted-over stretch of road, commonly referred to as “the Block.”
The latest move by state and city leaders has been to close a portion of Rio Grande Street, and on Friday, a tractor’s shrill beeping echoed out as it positioned cement barricades. A line of homeless folks hugged the shade next to the Catholic Community Service’s brick wall, and a kit of pigeons frantically pecked crumbs on the sidewalk.
Six police officers—a mix of city and state—milled under trees less than a block away.
Ferdinand says she feels “significantly safer” today than she did almost a month ago. “I’m really pleased as a citizen to have the police presence here and to actually see that they actually care about the community.”
Earlier this week, House Speaker Greg Hughes talked in dire terms, saying that the gains made during Operation Rio Grande would be lost if the city stalled to close the road. Speaking to KSL Radio host Doug Wright, Hughes publicly called out Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski for dragging her feet and using the road closure as a bargaining chip. In response, the mayor called in to say that she planned to block the street after the public had a chance to weigh in.
The mayor is encouraging residents to take a survey on her website. At the time of publication, more than 80 percent of the respondents said they felt the closure would increase safety on Rio Grande and benefit the public.
Asked for comment, the ACLU of Utah sent a statement that reads: “Without any specifics of what will happen and when, we aren’t really clear on what legal questions will be raised by some sort of closure. We really appreciate the concern that Salt Lake City is showing around the constitutionality of road closure, which should absolutely consider public comment and the First Amendment nature of public streets. We know that the City is concerned about doing this in a way that is most respectful to the individuals seeking and providing services in the area. We will have to wait and see, as the process rolls out, how the implementation will impact service providers and their clients.”
Not all homeless folks are as optimistic as Ferdinand. Chris Wanlace, who says he’s stayed at the Road Home off and on for the last three years, is doubtful that the road closure will affect the drug trade.
Indeed, less than 15 feet from where Wanlace stood on 300 South, a man appeared to have sold “white”—slang for cocaine—to a passing pedestrian.
And for some, the police presence is overreaching.
“Every minute I look up, I’ve got a police officer in my face. You know what I’m saying? That’s bullshit,” said a young man who identified himself only as Issa. Recently, Issa claims that police “ran up on him” for walking outside the crosswalk. He wasn’t cited or arrested, however.
“It’s cool that they’re trying to make a change, but the fact that they’re jamming guys like myself is a bunch of bullshit,” he concluded.