Editor’s note: This story contained numerous errors because of inaccurate data provided by the state. A significantly revised version, based on corrected information, was published and can be found here.
While residents throughout Salt Lake City lodge complaints that the 11-week-old Operation Rio Grande has driven more homeless people into their neighborhoods, available data show overnight stays at the downtown homeless shelter have climbed since the police-led effort began.
In the first 79 nights following the Aug. 14 launch of the operation, there were more nightly check-ins at The Road Home this year compared to the same period in 2016, according to data the shelter collects and shared with the Department of Workforce Services. The 2017 count was below that of 2016 on only nine nights.
The data seem to contradict the assertions of a board member and spokesman for a local business group who in a recent Tribune editorial board meeting suggested that The Road Home had padded its previous check-in count.
“The numbers have gone down [since Operation Rio Grande] proportionately from what was reported years ago from The Road Home, because they did self-counting." said Scott Howell, a former state senator now affiliated with the Pioneer Park Coalition.
Meanwhile, the joint state, city and county campaign to crack down on lawlessness around the shelter and provide better access to services has helped homeless people feel safer, say Operation Rio Grande proponents.
“That was probably one of the biggest barriers to the shelter. People didn’t feel safe in the streets,” said Matt Melville, homeless services director at Catholic Community Services, which operates a day center and dining hall near The Road Home. “Hopefully an increase is because of the efforts and people feeling safer.”
The figures, which DWS spokesman Nate McDonald said were nightly check-ins tracked by The Road Home and shared with the state, show more than an 8 percent increase in nightly check-ins in the 10 weeks since the launch of Operation Rio Grande compared with the same period in 2016.
Before the launch, state officials said people who wanted to use the shelter were deterred by rampant drug dealing and use on 500 West and surrounding streets.
Salt Lake County freed up hundreds of beds in its jail in anticipation of Operation Rio Grande, which kicked off with a police blitz.
Some 1,900 arrests have been logged since the operation’s launch. While many were booked on outstanding warrants, others were arrested for possession of drugs with intent to distribute. One man had an outstanding warrant for alleged rape, court documents show.
On Friday, the Department of Public Safety said the agency arrested five narcotics dealers at two homes in Salt Lake City and West Valley City. The agency said those arrested — whom they didn’t name but described as Honduran nationals — were “known active distributors in the Rio Grande area.”
“This is a great example of how intelligence and diligent police work by DPS agents are disrupting drug dealers and their operations,” DPS Commissioner Keith Squires said in a statement. “One by one, these arrests are removing dangerous criminals operating in our communities.”
The criminal activity — largely centered around drugs — represented a constant challenge for the group operating The Road Home, said Matt Minkevitch, the shelter’s executive director.
“The drug dealing that was going on on 500 West, it was simply unabated. It was unchecked,” Minkevitch said. “I’m very pleased that that has been disrupted.”
Despite the uptick in shelter stays, people are still sleeping outside near Rio Grande. Police generally don’t arrest people for camping on public property that doesn’t have hourly restrictions.
“If there’s an issue with a camp being set up and it’s on private property or something like that, we’ll go have them move along essentially,” said Salt Lake City Police Det. Richard Chipping. “It’s a difficult balance obviously because you’re dealing with people that are trying to live their lives.”
The feeling is shared by members of the business group that for years had advocated action to clean up the neighborhood before the operation began.
“Common decency has been restored,” said Tiffanie Provost, owner of Axiom Properties and a member of the Pioneer Park Coalition Board. “You now get a feel that it’s a neighborhood.”
While business leaders and homeless service providers say the operation has helped the neighborhood, residents elsewhere in the city continue to vent frustration over what they say is the disbursement of crime away from the shelter.
Residents from the Ballpark neighborhood said they were witnessing more crime near their homes following the launch, according to Michael Clara, a community activist in Poplar Grove who said he’s witnessed similar issues near his home.
Clara said House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, recommended residents make calls, take pictures and voice their concerns as the state continues through the two-year plan.
“He said that tells us there’s a problem,” Clara said of Hughes. “He said you need to let us know what’s going on. And he’s telling the truth.”