Gehrke: A year in, here are some of the people whose lives have changed because of Operation Rio Grande

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Chris Coons leads a tai chi group outside the Road Home shelter in Salt Lake City on Friday, August 10, 2018.

At the Salt Lake City Library last week, I saw a woman watching as a guy in a ball cap took all of her earthly belongings from a shopping cart and place it on the ground. A security guard stood by, just in case.

Stores pay the man $10 for each cart he reclaims. He had a trailer full of them that morning, and this would be his next bounty.

The woman, Jenna, was beside herself. She had no way to move her belongings, couldn’t get another cart, and couldn’t leave without risking losing everything, so I loaded her stuff in my trunk and gave her a ride to nearby Taufer Park where a group of homeless people were gathered.

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune The Salt Lake Tribune staff portraits. Robert Gehrke.

Along the way, we talked a little about life since Operation Rio Grande, the big coordinated effort to reduce the drugs and violence around the downtown homeless shelter and Pioneer Park.

“It’s gotten quieter,” she tells me, “but it’s gotten scarier.”

Before, she could stay away from Pioneer Park if she wanted to avoid the drugs and violence. Now, she says, it has spread out and she didn’t feel safe anywhere.

There is an upside, the stories of scores of people who had fallen through the cracks before, adrift in a community that barely noticed whether they lived or died, who now were getting help. Here are a few of those stories.

“Not A Hang-Out-At My House Type Of Guy”

It wasn’t long ago that Chris Coons was making $60,000 a year working as an electrician building the movie theater at The Gateway.

He had no idea that a block away there was a major drug trade going on right in the open. He also had no idea that he would someday end up there.

Coons, 54, had his hands full raising his daughter by himself while helping to build theaters and apartments. Then, a few years ago, his daughter decided she wanted to live with her mom, his twin brother died, and the capper — an apprentice working for him — got mad and burned down an apartment project they were working on near the downtown Smith’s grocery.

“I didn’t work after that. It ended my career,” Coons says.

He gave up his home, bounced around in motels for about a year-and-a-half, spending money he’d inherited from his brother and, about the time the money disappeared, so did his eyesight.

Coons suffered detached retinas and has been undergoing a series of surgeries to reattach them. Until his vision clears up, he can’t read a job application, much less work.

“Right now, I could be making $42 an hour working on the airport. It would be great. I could take the train from the shelter and back,” he told me Friday, as he and about 15 other homeless people were waiting to start a session of tai chi outside the new fenced-in “safe zone” near The Road Home. Coons led the group through the morning routine.

He stays in the shelter some of the time, spends some nights on the streets, “just surviving, just eating, breathing.” Thursday night he slept on a bench near the Wells Fargo building.

“I’m hooked on the spice,” he says. “Just now they’re trying to put a dent in it and make it harder to find, but I have places I could go pick up some right this second.”

The availability of drugs, he says, is pretty much the only change he has seen since Operation Rio Grande launched a year ago. They’ve driven the drug trade out of the Rio Grande area, but it’s just moved elsewhere.

Coons says the heavy focus on law enforcement is the wrong way to address the problems. On Thursday, a friend had some sort of breakdown, possibly had gone off his medication, and asked someone to call an ambulance. But the police showed up first and he ended up in jail instead of in the hospital.

Coons argued emphatically that every cop should be paired with a mental health professional.

“Every person out here has a mental illness,” he says. “If being mentally ill didn’t make you homeless, being homeless made you mentally ill … so why do they have cops and make it a legal issue?”

“No One Would Give Me A Chance”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Fabian Yazzie works as a framer in West Jordan. Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018.

This time next year, Fabian Yazzie says he wants to be debt free and wants to travel with his wife.

“I’ve been to a lot of places,” he says. “I would love for her to experience that like I did.”

Yazzie and his wife got evicted from their home in 2015. They tried to scrape up enough piecemeal work to stay in motels, but came up short and were forced to stay in the shelter to save money.

He hated it. It was noisy and dirty and people were moving around at all hours. There were people using drugs and fighting and he had to watch his belongings carefully to make sure nobody stole them. He couldn’t sleep and had to be out the door by 5 a.m. to catch the train to a job he was doing, then hurry back before the shelter closed its doors.

“I knew I was more than a laborer,” he says, “but no one would give me a chance. No one.”

Then he got a chance, and he took it.

Yazzie heard about the Dignity of Work program, a component of Operation Rio Grande, where he and 11 others took six months of framing classes through Salt Lake Community College and classes on life skills.

He got a room in a group home — which he says was difficult, because his wife had to remain in the shelter. At the end of the program, he was hired by a company called BMC.

“I could not of asked for a better employee than what Fabian has been for the department,” says his supervisor, Patrick Doyle. “He is very reliable and hard working.”

Now Yazzie, 49, has his own apartment. His wife is working in retail. And he has kicked the drug and alcohol addiction issues that dogged him for much of his life.

“I realized, I’m not getting any younger. I’m not going anywhere doing what I’m doing. So just one day, I went cold turkey,” he says. “This is the first time in my life I have been completely sober. Nothing. I don’t smoke, I don’t snort, I don’t drink anything.”

Yazzie says he’s happy now, without the anxiety that comes with living on the streets.

“It takes a big toll on you when you always worry where you’re going to sleep, what you’re going to eat, how you’re going to get to the job site, how you’ll get back, what the temperature is going to be like,” he says.

When he runs into his friends from the streets, he says he’ll tell them how he got his life back on track, but it’s up to them to make the choice.

“If you really want to do something,” he says, “then you’ll just have to be really dedicated to it. Because I put a lot of dedication into what I’m doing, and it shows in your work.”

“I Was Going to Die”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Emily Blain works as a waitress at Dee's restaurant on Redwood Road, Saturday, Aug. 11, 2018.

Emily Blain started serving bacon, eggs and pancakes to diners at the Dee’s Family Restaurant on the west side of Salt Lake City 20 years ago and recently went back to the job.

The intervening years, though, were hardly easy.

Blain struggled with drugs much of her life, mostly meth. Several years ago, she crashed her car while she was intoxicated. She was in an abusive relationship, lost her job and, not long after, lost her apartment.

She landed in a shelter in Ogden with her three young children, pregnant with her fourth while she was trying to get clean. Then she relapsed again.

From 2015 on she bounced between residential treatment and jail. The state took her children from her (they were adopted by her parents about a month ago).

She ended up homeless again starting in November 2016, sleeping on the streets because outstanding warrants made it impossible for her to stay in a shelter.

“It was humbling. It was hard. I was hungry. Desperate is a good word. That’s what, for a lot of us, leads us to crime — our desperation,” she says.

Blain, now 40, says she was going through “a lot of self-hatred” at having lost her children and was using heroin to erase the pain.

“I think I punished myself. Mainly, for that year, it was self-sabotage,” she says, but she realized something had to change. “I couldn’t take it anymore. I was going to die.”

About a month after police started the crackdown on homelessness around Pioneer Park, Blain turned herself in. She served her jail time and was released to a residential drug treatment program at Odyssey House.

Since Operation Rio Grande started, the state, county and city have committed millions of dollars, adding 243 residential treatment beds. There have been 132 people who have entered substance-abuse treatment through the newly established Operation Rio Grande court, according to figures from Salt Lake County.

An intense vetting process has meant a remarkable 74 percent of those who started treatment stayed with it, at least so far. The figure is usually closer to 40 percent, officials say.

Blain has gone through treatment alongside many of those individuals.

Currently, she is staying in sober living transitional housing and working at Dee’s, trying to clear up an old eviction and save money to move out on her own.

“My life is really going along really good,” she says. “It’s my chance to get to know myself.”

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