House Speaker Greg Hughes has a favorite conversation starter at his new pop-up office.
He points out the window toward the south side of 200 South, where one or more people sit, stand or pace, and asks "Who are we looking at?"
"Is that a member of a drug cartel? Is that a middleman? Is that somebody with behavioral health problems and they need a treatment bed? Is it somebody down on their luck who just needs a chance?
"The fundamental answer is we do not know."
Hughes believes anonymity breeds lawlessness in Salt Lake City's beleaguered Rio Grande neighborhood, and the Draper Republican has devised a possible solution that he hopes to pitch at an upcoming meeting called by Gov. Gary Herbert.
The still-tentative plan is inspired by Operation Diversion, in which Salt Lake City and County teamed up last fall to round up area offenders and offer many of them a choice between treatment and jail.
Hughes' proposed sweeps would be on a larger scale — daily, for an indefinite period. Offenders would be taken to an off-site processing area, and, from there, they'd either be booked into newly freed-up jail beds, sent to mental health or addiction treatment, or bused back to Rio Grande having had their bad habits — at the least — interrupted. Some might be sent back to other states on outstanding warrants.
The key, Hughes said, is that these individuals would become known to the system.
No retreat • Hughes opened his "war room," as he calls the old Salt Lake City Police Department resource center at the south end of The Gateway mall, to show involved officials "the unvarnished truth with what's going on there." He's since met with legislators, mayors and law enforcement, and joined regular conference calls during a vacation.
Hughes earlier this month made headlines by calling for the appointment of a state official who would restore safety around the 1,100-bed shelter at 210 S. Rio Grande St., and, for now, he's playing that part himself.
Hughes described himself Friday as "on the shores of Persia": "The Persian army outnumbers me 2-to-1, and I'm burning my own boats because I'm not going back. I am not retreating out of this space."
His attention had already been drawn to Rio Grande by accounts from law enforcement and business leaders when, over the Fourth of July holiday, the attack on a Triple-A baseball player and a fatal auto-pedestrian crash received national attention.
Salt Lake City crime data that showed a 6 percent decrease in year-to-date serious offenses didn't sway him, nor did assurances that newfound jail space has allowed police to enforce previously toothless ordinances against loitering and camping. He can look out that window, he said, and see people in a daze, or making drug exchanges, or fighting.
Next Wednesday, Herbert has invited Hughes, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, and other state, city and county officials to set a path forward for the neighborhood.
"I can't have another meeting where we talk about the issue," Hughes said. "I can't have another meeting where we just tell war stories about how bad it is. I want to bring a plan forward and there are action items in that plan, so that when we leave that meeting, it's not, 'Let's create a committee to stare at it some more or talk about it some more.' "
Paul Edwards, Herbert's deputy chief of staff, said the governor is of the same mind, and expected Hughes would take a lead role.
Targeting crime • To help make his case for a sort-of Operation Diversion on steroids, Hughes has tapped 10 Republican representatives.
Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, chairman of the Social Services Appropriations Committee, said their target isn't homelessness, but lawlessness.
On a recent visit to the area, Ray said a woman tried to splash him with her sport drink and, having missed, threw the bottle at him. Another man followed him yelling, "Cop!"
House Majority Leader Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said the area is a blight on Utah's capital for those who arrive from the north on Interstate 15's 400 South exit.
"We've got some of the premier real estate down in that area that is being underutilized right now because of the lawlessness going on," said Wilson, a developer. "It's not a place people want to visit. Once we can get the lawlessness out of there, we're obviously in a much better place."
As power-brokering Republicans insert themselves into a yearslong effort from the state's leading Democrats to improve the neighborhood and reduce homelessness, they have yet to receive an enthusiastic endorsement. But Salt Lake City and County mayors haven't opposed them, either. Hughes, in turn, has complimented the mayors for paying the political price of siting three new homeless shelters.
"We're happy to have the attention of the state," McAdams said. "This is a big issue that's bigger than Salt Lake County and Salt Lake City."
Salt Lake City spokesman Matthew Rojas said Friday that Hughes has "presented some ideas in rough format" and that the city is awaiting more information. Hughes' presence on 200 South and his desire to learn more about the area are welcome, he said.
Hughes said Friday that some people might be "a little hesitant" about his plan — which he is careful to say is unfinished — because "they're worried about the optics or what people think."
"There's not going to be an easy way or a comfortable way out of this," he said.
Civil rights • Hughes has looped in House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, an American Civil Liberties Union of Utah board member, and ACLU attorney Marina Lowe.
King said it's important that any roundups make a clear distinction between illegal and undesirable activities, and he has the sense that Hughes agrees, even if the speaker has previously cited the success of Honolulu's crackdown on loitering and camping.
Lowe said that besides raising legal questions, efforts to criminalize homelessness "typically don't work." Lowe said Hughes has asked her to find some examples of ways that other communities have effectively improved such areas while respecting constitutional rights.
"We really appreciate having a measured and thoughtful approach to it instead of taking quick action that may violate people's rights," Lowe said.
McAdams said that he expressed to Hughes the importance of including treatment as a component of a stepped-up law enforcement effort.
The county's request for more than twice its per capita share of $6 million in state grant funds was denied earlier this month, throwing into jeopardy the future of 63 residential addiction treatment beds made available during Operation Diversion, as well as a proposed "Diversion Court" that would hold charges over offenders until the completion of their publicly funded treatment.
Hughes' team is still trying to find treatment beds, jail beds and funding for its proposal, but the speaker said other jurisdictions are willing to help in ways that he wasn't immediately prepared to specify.
Ray said the state has about $8 million in federal funding for needy families held in reserve that it might be able to apply to the effort, and House Republicans also hope the Trump administration will approve the state's $100 million Medicaid waiver request sooner than expected — before Jan. 1.
Hughes said he's not worried about money. The state has allocated more funding to all sides of the effort in recent years, he said, and the problem is "worse."
"You don't have to spend any money to be worse. You can be worse for free. That means that I have to do a better job at how those state resources are being appropriated."