Leading homelessness expert calls Operation Rio Grande a ‘disaster’

Critic says that Utah has damaged the reputation it had developed in recent years for its housing-first approach.<br>

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Homelessness advocate Pamela Atkinson, left, joined Lt. Governor Spencer Cox in a panel discusion to Utah homeless service providers at Utah's 14th Annual Homelessness Summit in Salt Lake City Wednesday Oct. 11.

As Utah leaders explained their motivations for Operation Rio Grande to a ballroom full of service providers, one man sat at the front of the audience and tweeted.

“Panel of privileged white people talking about homelessness & addiction is clearly about social control, not social service,” he wrote.

“Programs & policies that impact substance users & homeless persons need experts on the issues not naive legislators.”

“#Utah you had a great reputation for your work to #endhomelessness & #housing first - blowing that all w Operation Rio Grande.”

Who invited the troll? The state of Utah, actually.

OrgCode CEO Iain De Jong is a nationally renowned expert who presented at Wednesday’s 14th annual state homelessness summit. Utah providers use his screening assessments to triage people seeking services, and he is consulting with a nonprofit board, Shelter the Homeless, about the design of three resource-intensive shelters coming to the Salt Lake area.

But while local service providers haven’t criticized Operation Rio Grande — and many on Wednesday warmly applauded Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, House Speaker Greg Hughes, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, developer Josh Romney and, especially, longtime homeless advocate Pamela Atkinson — De Jong described it as “an exercise in social control rather than social service.”

“It represents a gross misunderstanding of addiction, dependency and treatment,” De Jong said later Wednesday. “And it baffles me that you can have so many privileged people think that they know what’s best for people experiencing homelessness.”

The estimated $67 million, two-year operation aims to reduce lawlessness near the 1,100-bed shelter at 210 S. Rio Grande St. through three phases: by first cracking down on area drug use, then offering residential treatment beds to some offenders, and then trying to find them work.

Police have recorded nearly 1,600 bookings at the Salt Lake County jail resulting from Operation Rio Grande. Sixty-one dedicated treatment beds and a new drug court have been opened, and another 180 treatment beds are expected by the end of 2017 (though that’s currently contingent on a speedy federal approval of Utah’s Medicaid waiver). Details about the “dignity of work” phase will be released soon, Cox said Wednesday.

The effect of Operation Rio Grande is apparent to anybody who previously visited its the neighborhood, where heroin and other hard drugs were sold and used brazenly and are now in far scarcer supply.

Atkinson said Wednesday that the day before Operation Rio Grande’s Aug. 14 launch, as she was handing out sandwiches, the buyer and seller in a drug deal had stopped to say hello — so unconcerned were they about the illegality of their transaction.

Her response: “I‘ve got something much better than what you’ve got, I’ve got peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.” They laughed, she said, but declined and continued boldly about their business.

Cox added Wednesday night that the state would rather that the city and county had been able to find a solution, “but everyone knows that this has continued to get worse, and that what was being done wasn‘t working.”

The operation “highlights and underscores everything that people had been telling us, and that is that the problem was far worse than people had understood, and that includes Mr. De Jong,” he said.

Officials say the operation hasn’t reduced the number of people accessing area homeless services, which indicates to them that the people who have been booked into jail were there for illicit activity, not the shelter, dining hall and day center.

Although leaders thought about enforcing camping ordinances during the planning stages of Operation Rio Grande, officers thus far haven’t focused on such crimes, which national watchdogs refer to as “criminalizing” homelessness. Cox added that the state’s 2015 criminal justice reforms lowered the penalties for many of the crimes being prosecuted, with the understanding that the cycle of addiction can’t be broken through law enforcement alone.

But to De Jong, the mass arrests are undoing Utah’s reputation as an early embracer of the progressive, housing-first model of homeless services. He scoffed at a panelist’s suggestion that Utah’s current approach would similarly become a model for other communities.

“Actually, I think they’re going to look at Utah as a disaster, of how exactly not to criminalize your way out of poverty and homelessness,” he said. “The country looked to Utah. Now the country’s in a position where they’re having a ‘What the heck?’ moment and saying ‘You seem to be throwing under the bus all of the great things you did for so many years, and now we’re confused, Utah. What are you really all about?’”

To Cox’s claim that that homeless people and drug users have come to Utah as a result of hearing about the availability of housing, De Jong tweeted Wednesday that there was “no data” cited to support that. To an anecdote that former drug users had told officials they stopped using after being arrested, De Jong said that was “insufficient evidence to inform gov policy.”

Cox had earlier said to cheers that warehousing mentally ill and drug-addicted people in jail “doesn‘t work,” but that “removing consequences for our actions and the soft bigotry of low expectations also doesn’t work.”

“You have to have both,” he said.

Said De Jong later: “There were no shortage of times this morning, in particular when the panel talked about lawlessness and consequences, which very clearly demonstrates this is a law-and-order agenda. This isn’t a people agenda.”

Jonathan Hardy, director of the Department of Workforce Services’ housing and community development division, said he talked to De Jong during lunch and that he’s “not 100 percent informed on Operation Rio Grande.”

Some of De Jong’s complaints seemed to be based on the terminology that officials had used, Hardy said: Operation Rio Grande was targeting a “street-involved” population, not a homeless population. De Jong had told The Salt Lake Tribune earlier Wednesday that officials had seemed to be confused about the difference, though that was “not a justification for putting people in a position of homelessness to experience tyranny in the system that forces them to change who they are.”

Cox said Wednesday night that Operation Rio Grande’s leaders expected such feedback, adding, “I’m surprised there weren’t more critics.”

“We recognize that we don‘t have all of the beds that we would like to have, and that does, I admit, leave us open to criticisms, but my biggest concern is when people are getting shot, people are shooting up in front of cops and children and families, people are getting their heads bashed in by rocks — all of which happened.”

De Jong’s views of homelessness are in stark contrast to those offered in 2015 by another well-known expert, Texas-based tough-love, campus-shelter proponent Robert Marbut. Marbut had consulted with a group of Rio Grande-area business owners, developers and residents known as the Pioneer Park Coalition and has said he is following Operation Rio Grande “very, very closely.”

De Jong tweeted Wednesday that Operation Rio Grande was evidence of the “Marbut influence”: “Backwards. Offensive. Criminalizing homelessness is plain wrong. Try #empathy.”

Where De Jong was a relative celebrity at a July conference on ending homelessness in Washington, D.C. — his sessions packed, a crowd gathering around him at social periods — Marbut didn’t attend. One Utah service provider laughed at the notion that he might have. “He’s old-school,” they said.

Hardy said Wednesday that the state values De Jong’s input, and that “if you were to ask me who we would listen to, Iain versus Marbut, I think there would be no question. We would rather listen to Iain.”