As Operation Rio Grande shifts to its third phase in three months, it’s reasonable to ask: Are the first two phases finished?
The answer is, of course not.
Attacking the chaos and crime at Rio Grande was an absolute necessity, and it took the gravitas of the state’s political leaders to cut through the inertia and get on with it. But this moving through the phases of the plan in 12 weeks looks like political posturing. All three phases — enforcement, treatment, employment — are the right things to emphasize, but this was never something that was going to be solved with a one-time blitz.
The three-step plan is really three prongs, each needing years to produce sustainable results. The enforcement phase pushed many problems to other parts of the city, and the treatment phase is still starved for money and beds. The employment phase announcement this week was highlighted by some commendable business people committing to hire the homeless. But those jobs won’t be enough, and they won’t be a replacement for the kind of job training and occupational therapy that would truly lift them from their predicament.
The roots of these problems are deep and ingrained, and we’d be better served by looking at this as more evolution than revolution.
We’d also be better served by good data, and in that Utah stumbled out of the gate. While there has been much debate about the proper approaches to homelessness, there has been universal agreement on one point: We need better information. Tracking people — in ways that are constitutionally and morally justified — is the only way to know what works and what doesn’t. So it’s disappointing the state Department of Workforce Services had to revise its estimates on use of the Road Home shelter since Operation Rio Grande started.
This week’s announcement of the third phase came with its own optics. State leaders had plotted the operation from a storefront in the Gateway across the street from the Road Home, a space they called the “war room.” Now, to recognize this third phase, they were changing it to the “work room.”
In fact, it was always a work room. War is a poor analogy for giving a humane and practical path to people who find themselves at life’s bottom. Good information, adequate resources and dedicated support people will be the way out, and it won’t happen in a matter of weeks.