Several months ago, homeless advocate Pamela Atkinson’s attempts to assist one man with a mental illness were met with a colorfully worded rebuff.
“He told me I was just a piece of S-H-I-T,” Atkinson said on Wednesday from a podium set up in the Utah State Capitol. And later, “He told me to ‘eff off.”
Those aggressive remarks were made before Operation Rio Grande, however—the state, city and county’s multifaceted attack on locking away the hardline criminals, helping those suffering with addiction and mental illness find resources.
Last week, Atkinson said, she ran into the same man, who had recently obtained a certificate that designated his dog as a service animal; he embraced Atkinson in a hug.
The anecdote shared by Atkinson serves as an example of the shift in environment on a segment of Rio Grande Street that has been closed to traffic. “Yes, he still needs treatment,” she assured. “But he’s somewhat quieter now because of the environment.”
Operation Rio Grande leaders held a press conference to give a two-month update, and in their own estimation, the progress is noticeable and profound, but the issues are far from solved.
Before Operation Rio Grande, Atkinson attests, she would walk around the area see the despair: open drug deals, people shooting up on the sidewalk, others passed out or sick.
“I’m continuing to walk about,” she said. “What a complete contrast. There are people who are smiling. There are people who are saying, ‘Hey, Pamela, we are so grateful that now there is a safe area.’ I know a lot of emphasis is being placed on the law enforcement, but that was absolutely necessary.”
Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown presented crime statistics gathered over the last 28 days and compared them to the same time period last year. Part I crimes, which include homicide, burglary, assault and rape, are down more than 24 percent. The less serious Part II crimes—things like drug abuse, vandalism, fraud and disorderly conduct—are down 58 percent.
“That’s amazing. We’ve moved the needle through our partnerships and everything we’re doing down there drastically,” Brown said.
Brown mentioned a co-responders pilot program, one that pairs social workers with police officers. Over the last month, co-responder teams have been deployed four days a week and contact about 115 people, Brown said, who have received some degree of service that they might otherwise not have.
Brown also reported that this week, four chronically homeless people have been lined up for housing and three others with week have been placed in residential treatment.
“This is an opportunity for a neighborhood to reclaim its quality of life,” he said.
Noella Sudbury, Salt Lake County senior criminal justice policy advisor, said the expansion of treatment has included 15 new detox beds at Volunteers of America and 61 additional residential treatment beds at House of Hope, Odyssey House and First Step House.
Nearly 400 people have been screened for the recently established drug court, according to Sudbury, 80 of whom were identified as good candidates for the program.
“Most of those individuals are now actively engaged in structured treatment programs,” she said.
House Speaker Greg Hughes encouraged residents to visit the neighborhood. “I think it is now safe enough to tell you to go down there, join us, be there, see what’s happening and I think you’ll be pleased with the work that’s going on right now,” he said.
The state is waiting on the federal government for Medicaid waivers that would help pay for additional treatment beds. Hughes, one of several officials that met with the Department of Health and Human Services earlier this month, is “bullish” on the prospect of the waivers, despite distractions caused by former Secretary Tom Price’s decision to quit amid scandal.
Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who was plucked by Gov. Gary Herbert to be the state’s lead on homelessness, underscored the dialogue recurring between police and homeless individuals. “We, as a state, as a county and as a city have never been more engaged with our friends experiencing homelessness, ever,” he said.