It has a name, at least. Unofficially.
In tweets, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox referred to an all-hands-on-deck effort to reduce lawlessness around Salt Lake City’s downtown homeless shelter as #OperationRioGrande.
But more than a week after elected officials announced at the state Capitol that they were coming — in lockstep — for area lawbreakers, they continue to first seek a clear path forward.
House Speaker Greg Hughes has corralled stakeholders of all stripes to strategize in an old 200 South police office at the south end of The Gateway mall, across from what he believes is an entrenched marketplace for spice.
“They can see me with my binoculars, looking out at them,” said the Draper Republican. “It doesn’t slow them down a second. They flip me off.”
Hughes has likened the situation to his own personal Thermopylae, and is anxious to begin the fight. But he first needs jail beds, an off-site processing center and an identification system — as well as mental and behavioral health treatment and employment opportunities for lower-level offenders.
The feeling of urgency increased yet again Thursday night, when a 32-year-old man was shot and killed at the epicenter of the free-for-all drug market.
In consecutive days last week, a 26-year-old man was gunned down and a 55-year-old man was bashed to death with a paving stone.
Said Scott Howell of the Pioneer Park Coalition, a group of area business leaders and developers: “I think speed is of the essence. I really do. I think lives are at stake.”
Cox is Gov. Gary Herbert’s “point person” for Operation Rio Grande. Hughes, perhaps, its Spartan general. The multi-jurisdictional law enforcement effort will be overseen by Utah Public Safety Commissioner Keith Squires, who didn’t reply to a request for comment Friday.
Both Cox and Hughes have framed the collaboration as unprecedented, even if details continue to be hashed out.
Bill Tibbitts, of the Crossroads Urban Center, said he hopes Operation Rio Grande distinguishes itself from past attempts when “law enforcement goes in in the name of cracking down on drug dealing and gives a bunch of homeless people tickets for things like jaywalking, or trespassing for walking across a parking lot.”
He added: “The big grain of truth they have on their side is that there probably isn’t a reason why the area of homeless services has to also be the area where drug dealing is allowed in a way that it’s not allowed in other parts of the city and state.”
It’s been 10 years since a spate of crimes led police to bear down on nearby Pioneer Park and 20 since then-Mayor DeeDee Corradini closed the park for a weekslong cleanup. The Tribune wrote about escalating drug use near the 210 S. Rio Grande St. shelter as long ago as 1992.
Elected officials have agreed to shutter the shelter in 2019, when three more facilities come online. But those shelters are expected to house 400 fewer beds, and it’s a “dangerous assumption” that the homeless population will draw down accordingly without more drastic action, Hughes said.
“Nobody is singularly focused on that reality, and we have to be,” he said.
The most pressing issue may be jail beds. While legislation this year freed up 300 in other counties, only 30 were available as of last week. Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski said in a Friday statement that her office is working on a plan to increase space in the Salt Lake County jail and called upon others to support it.
Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown tweeted Friday night that the department was “increasing our presence” in the Rio Grande and Depot District “with directed patrols focusing on order maintenance. This will continue.”
Law enforcement also needs a processing center, where officers can transport offenders in bulk. There, lawbreakers would be directed to jail or treatment. Salt Lake City police used the old Barnes Bank building in a smaller-scale version of the plan last fall.
Camp Williams, the Utah National Guard post 25 miles to the south, is Hughes’ favored choice. That strikes some as “militarized,” he said, but he wants something “that sends a clear message to the public that they’re 100 percent safe in this process.”
Cox said that wherever it ends up, “I want to be very clear that no one will be staying there.”
Hughes sometimes describes criminal activity — like the brazen drug dealing that any passer-by encounters if they aren’t in police uniform — that can be enforced without objection. Other times, he veers into discussion of camping and loitering. Cities have fared poorly in federal court challenges when they’ve arrested homeless people for occupying a public space, if those people don’t have a safe alternative.
Hughes has included an attorney from the ACLU of Utah in his discussions, and has put various quick-fix options before stakeholders — from single-room occupancy houses that could be built from shipping containers in 90 days, to the closure of Rio Grande St. between 200 and 300 South and the creation of an enclosed courtyard space.
“You have to have alternatives,” he said. “You can’t just tell people, ‘You can’t be here,’ without having contemplated where they can go.”
His plan also includes a new state-supported identification system, though the kinks have yet to be worked out. Hughes proposes ID cards that homeless people would need to access services, with a biometric component — like fingerprint scanners — that would prevent fraudulent use. He believes the system could be supported by $1 million in repurposed state funds that haven’t been used.
Catholic Community Services began issuing ID cards two years ago at its Weigand Homeless Resource Center, to the east of the shelter, and found that they kept out ”street riffraff” who had previously caused problems, said Matthew Melville, CCS director of homeless services. Wrongdoers weren’t willing to have their pictures taken, he said.
“Anything that helps us better track those that are actually using the services and helps them access the services quicker instead of queuing up in a line is going to be beneficial to everybody,” Melville said.
Matt Minkevitch — executive director of The Road Home, which runs the 210 S. Rio Grande St. shelter — said he is ”encouraged” by the discussion. A state-issued ID card would be a boon to many homeless people who are unable to obtain housing, or cash their first paycheck, because they no longer have the necessary documents.
An arm of the plan that excites Cox, is what he’s termed “The Dignity of Work.”
Cox tapped Utah Jazz President Steve Starks to find private sector job opportunities for homeless, and Starks said Friday that he is in the early stages of forming a committee.
“Obviously, I want to help do what I can,” Starks said. ”I think it‘s one of those things where everybody has to pitch in and do our part.”