By Thursday, four days into an unprecedented crackdown on the brazen drug dealing near Salt Lake City’s downtown homeless shelter, the hottest trade in the Rio Grande neighborhood was the eclipse glasses at Clark Planetarium.
Area business leaders hailed a new era in which their employees weren’t afraid to come to work, and homeless people weren’t preyed upon as they tried to access services.
Nearly 300 people had been arrested — two dozen on felony charges. Only one arrest involved force.
On Friday, House Speaker Greg Hughes said, ”Frankly, as we were planning this, I didn’t know that you would see as remarkable of a change for the better as we have seen.”
But outside the vicinity of the shelter, particularly to the west, some in Salt Lake City believe Operation Rio Grande has amounted to a game of whack-a-mole.
Two Salt Lake City Democratic legislators released a statement Friday saying that residents from adjacent neighborhoods ”must be included in the conversation around how to avoid shifting this crisis from one neighborhood to another.”
Sen. Luz Escamilla and Rep. Angela Romero wrote that “the residents of these communities are now facing the very same issues the actions at Rio Grande set out to address.”
About a dozen people congregated Friday afternoon at Madsen Park, at 1000 West and South Temple, with their backpacks and blankets strewn about.
None admitted to migrating from “The Block,” but one said that he had seen as many as four times more people moving through the park since Monday.
Brad Hart, a carpenter who lives in the area, said drug users have access to a ”thriving street drug market, long established,” along North Temple. Operation Rio Grande has driven those people farther from services and as close as ever to drugs, he said.
“I have seen a lot more police and [Utah] Highway Patrol than usual, so I realize they‘re working on it, but how long will they do that?” he said. ”My neighborhood already has a lot of problems.”
Richard Shelton, whose wife called police about the population boom in Madsen Park, said he lived in Ogden during a 1960s crackdown on the once-seedy 25th Street. Then, crime just spread into the neighborhoods, he said, adding that taxpayer dollars can be better spent.
“I know people can get over [addiction] if they have treatment,” he said. ”What really drives me bonkers is these idiots in the Legislature that won‘t take the Medicaid.”
To the northwest of Madsen Park, where North Temple crosses the Jordan River, state troopers on Friday persuaded two men camping on the south side of the bridge to pack up their belongings and move — but it was anyone’s guess where they were headed.
Across North Temple and down the parkway trail 50 yards, past scattered camping supplies and overturned boxes of food waste, 40-year-old Nicole lay next to a sleeping dog, two friends, and two fishing poles that her son has used to catch carp and crawdads.
Nicole, whose surname has been omitted so she could speak candidly without harming her prospects, said they recently moved to the area in response to Operation Rio Grande — which she calls “ridiculous” — and still have access to drugs — though they‘re ”a little bit harder to find.”
Bryce Garner, chairman of the Fairpark Community Council, said the neighborhood has long been home to an outsize share of the city’s homeless, ”but there are definitely a lot more people” since Monday’s operation.
“It doesn‘t seem to bode well,” he said. ”This operation is supposed to be ongoing for the next two years, but does that just mean the police are out there pushing people along to move to a new place constantly?”
Department of Public Safety (DPS) Commissioner Keith Squires reiterated Friday that officials had counted on this scattering effect, and that the officers under his command are closely tracking the movements of drug dealers, especially.
“We also knew that some people would feel displaced for a while, at least, and maybe move to other areas,” he said.
Thus far, he‘s been told by area law enforcement that ”everything’s manageable within the resources they have in their agencies. But they know that we’re here to help them if they need it.”
The most popular destination for those who previously inhabited the sidewalks and public lots around Rio Grande — judging from Salt Lake Tribune reader accounts — is on North Temple, between 600 West and Redwood Road, and more broadly throughout the Poplar Grove and Glendale communities on Salt Lake City’s west side.
Hughes and other leaders plan to address westside community members next Friday, Romero said.
The Tribune also received multiple reports an influx of people in Taufer Park, at the northwest corner of 700 South and 300 East, and along 1300 South, in the Ballpark community.
Others said they saw heightened activity in Liberty Park and Sugar House Park, at the Gilgal Sculpture Garden, and as far south along the Utah Transit Authority’s TRAX line as Midvale.
Phasing in Phase Two
Local leaders have repeatedly emphasized that Operation Rio Grande should not be judged by its debut, in which a DPS helicopter circled overhead as officers swarmed every side of the shelter at 210 S. Rio Grande St. and Pioneer Park.
That’s just Phase One. Phase Two, which began Friday, would provide treatment to those in need, and Phase Three — timeline unknown — would provide work opportunities.
“It‘s important that the treatment side is beginning today because something’s happening out there right now,” Hughes said Friday. ”Those who were very used to getting drugs at high quantities — because we looked for those high-traffic drug users and were able to remove them — as that supply has gone down, you’re finding some individuals who are becoming desperate in nature.“
No new detox beds had been created, though — at least not yet. In fact, few specifics offered Friday supported the claim that any kind of treatment had begun to ramp up.
Kathy Bray, president and CEO of Volunteers of America, Utah, said Friday that 15 more detox beds will be available by early September, after the state granted the detox center an exception to its limit of one bed per 50 square feet.
Within the year, the VOA expects to have 30 more detox beds with a reopened center for women and children in Murray.
Although the Salt Lake City Police Department’s Community Connection Center (CCC) in July acquired three more of the VOA’s 65 beds at its location on 300 West and the detox center has ”shifted” eligible clients to Salt Lake County beds to make room for those referred by the CCC, the VOA’s overall supply is the same, for now.
During the throes of heroin withdrawal, which is generally thought to be at its worst in the first two to three days, people need fluids, food, and a place to sleep and care for themselves, said Lana Dalton, social work manager at the CCC.
Right now, the supply of detox beds and other treatment types may not meet demand, she said, but ”I would say that we’re gaining ground on being able to provide the necessary services that we’ve been needing to provide for a long time, with the state’s help. That’s the key.”
Thirty-seven residential treatment beds are expected to come online within weeks, with as many as 200 expected by spring, pending the approval of the state’s $100 million Medicaid waiver request.
But why not hold off on Operation Rio Grande another few weeks, until some of those beds were online? Hughes, who spearheaded the effort, was asked that question Friday.
His answer: “We talked a big talk about this project, and if I said ‘We are hair-on-fire going to do this, we’ll see you in 10 months,’ not only was it not practical given the carnage and the escalating crime that was occurring, but we thought we had a better plan than that, where we could really start to thin out and interrupt that ecosystem of crime.”
Hughes and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox had previously said they expected to issue ID cards as part of Friday’s Phase Two rollout, but those plans apparently hit a snag.
The speaker said Friday that they might only be “days away” from implementing the cards, which are expected one day to be required for access to homeless services.
The Crossroads Urban Center has expressed skepticism about the purpose of the cards, and Executive Director Glenn Bailey wondered Friday whether, instead, the state might provide homeless people with the driver’s licenses and birth certificates that many sorely lack.