As leaders assess first two months, Operation Rio Grande gets a thumbs up from Utah voters

Speaker Hughes tells residents to see for themselves the progress made in downtown Salt Lake City.

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) Motorcycle officers from the Salt Lake City Police Department ride down 400 west as law enforcement officers from several agencies increase their presence in the Rio Grand homeless area in Salt Lake City Monday August 14, 2017.

State officials are so confident that Operation Rio Grande has restored order near Salt Lake City’s downtown homeless shelter that they’re inviting you to see it for yourself.

“Come down there, join us, be there, see what’s happening,” said House Speaker Greg Hughes. “I think you will be pleased with the work that’s going on right now.”

A new statewide Salt Lake Tribune-Hinckley Institute of Politics poll shows nearly two-thirds of registered voters believe the effort has been at least somewhat effective in reducing lawlessness near the 210 S. Rio Grande St. shelter.

Conducted Oct. 10-13 by Dan Jones & Associates, the poll found that 12 percent thought it had been “very effective” and 51 percent said it was “somewhat” so. Fifteen percent said it was “not very effective,” and 6 percent felt it had been “not at all effective.”

Hughes and other officials gathered at the Capitol on Wednesday to reflect on the first two months of the crackdown, counting among their successes the creation of 61 drug-addiction treatment beds and a slight uptick in use of area services.

“We don’t have the victory banner up above us,” said Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox. “We’re definitely not there. We have a lot of work left to do. But we have achieved some very important things.”

In the category of “work left to do” is the creation of 180 additional treatment beds that were once said to be expected by the end of the year.

State officials plan to fund those beds with $7 million from a small-scale Medicaid expansion. Cox acknowledged that they hit “a bump in the road” late last month when Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price resigned over his air travel controversies shortly after meeting with Gov. Gary Herbert, Hughes and other state officials who had stressed a need to receive approval by November.

Should the waiver not be approved on schedule, Cox said, there are budget contingencies that will at least keep open the 61 treatment beds already on line.

He added that officials are also measuring the effectiveness of sober living arrangements that cost $28 per day — less than one-third the lowest price for residential treatment.

But Hughes, R-Draper, said Wednesday that he is “bullish” on the prospect of Medicaid waiver approval — new secretary or no.

When the Pittsburgh native attended last week’s White House celebration of his hometown’s Stanley Cup champion Penguins, Hughes said he skipped a West Wing tour to meet with Staff Secretary Rob Porter about Operation Rio Grande.

Utah is a “shovel-ready state” for President Donald Trump’s ambitions to combat opioid abuse, Hughes said he told Porter, who previously served as chief of staff to Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch.

“I lost my whole tour of that place [White House] talking about this effort, so the trade-off had better be that we’re getting those waivers here at the end of October,” Hughes joked Wednesday.

Another work in progress is a “safe space” built onto Rio Grande Street itself between the 210 S. Rio Grande St. shelter and the Catholic Community Services facilities to the east.

That’s expected to “open” — meaning it will be closed to those who don’t possess a homeless services ID card — Oct. 23. The Department of Workforce Services said more than 600 ID cards had been distributed as of Wednesday.

And Cox said a news conference will be called within the next few weeks to elaborate on what he’s termed a third, “dignity of work” phase, in which he expects employers to provide jobs for those swept up in Operation Rio Grande.

Although broadly popular and lauded by area business owners, developers and residents, Operation Rio Grande hasn’t been without its critics.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, which was asked for input during the planning stages, has stated its concern that there has been a disproportionate emphasis on law enforcement, compared to treatment.

Representatives of the Crossroads Urban Center, a nonprofit serving low-income Utahns, have wondered whether $67 million might be better spent on affordable housing, and questioned the intent of identification cards that won’t fulfill the often sorely needed functions of a state-issued ID.

Some residents and representatives in nearby neighborhoods — particularly in Poplar Grove and Glendale, to the west — have accused police of chasing Rio Grande’s drug activity into their parks and streets.

And at last week’s state Homelessness Summit, speaker Iain De Jong — who is consulting with a local nonprofit about building three new homeless shelters — characterized Operation Rio Grande as a draconian exercise that increases the barriers to success for those arrested.

Related bookings into the Salt Lake County jail had totaled nearly 1,700 as of Monday. The Department of Public Safety has served nine search warrants using information gained during Operation Rio Grande, and Commissioner Keith Squires said Wednesday that those resulted in 40 additional arrests.

Roughly 80 people have been assessed for treatment through a new specialty drug court program, and Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown said Wednesday that the department’s social workers have begun teaming with officers in the field.

Longtime homeless advocate Pamela Atkinson said people experiencing homelessness have expressed to her their gratitude that they can again feel safe accessing services in the shelter area.

“I’m seeing people now that I haven’t seen in ages,” she said. “They’ve been camping out in the boondocks.”

Hughes said Wednesday that he’s not sure “if the public understood some of the carnage that was going on.” The change can be measured, he said, by “the senses that the man upstairs gave us.”

Salt Lake City police data for the Rio Grande District shows a 70 percent decrease in drug-abuse reports during the past four weeks, compared to the same period in 2016. More serious crimes — homicides, sexual assaults, robberies and theft — were down nearly 25 percent.

Cox added that the expenses of law enforcement were on track with estimates, “almost to the penny.”

The total two-year cost was pegged in late August at $67 million — $19 million for law enforcement, $19 million for drug-treatment beds, $15 million to free up Salt Lake County jail beds and another $15 million for housing and other unspecified services.