Leaders say they’ve improved Rio Grande neighborhood six months into state-led operation

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) House Speaker Greg Hughes talks about the incremental positive changes happening with Operation Rio Grande which began six months ago. State and local officials provided an update on successes, challenges and current activities taking place to tackle the homeless and drug problem downtown.

The politicians leading the two-year transition from a large, centralized homeless shelter in downtown Salt Lake City to a new services-focused model in summer 2019 say they’ve been successful in the six months since they launched the effort.

Crime dropped in the Rio Grande neighborhood, they say. Police made 466 felony arrests since Aug. 14, 2017, in the area that they attribute to the effort, and 943 arrests were made for outstanding warrants.

Those arrests, along with the focus and federal aid for substance-abuse treatment beds, represent a good start to the two-year effort and will lead to fewer people in homelessness, the leaders say.

“We have a great long-term plan,” House Speaker Greg Hughes said Monday. “We have state participation, we have private resources going to the resource centers.”

Hughes and other leaders held a news conference to tout what they said were successes of Operation Rio Grande the day before the speaker and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox are set to present an update to a legislative budget panel, which will have the chance to dig into the costs of the effort.

The officials declined Monday to discuss spending on the operation other than to say departments stretched their budgets to make it happen, adding there would be requests for money from the Legislature this session. The anticipated total cost, they said, remained at the previously estimated $67 million between state and local governments.

The plan announced last year calls for closing the 1,100-bed shelter downtown and opening three new smaller shelters, two in Salt Lake City and one in South Salt Lake.

State, federal and local officials created Operation Rio Grande, the three-phase, two-year effort to end years of open drug use in the vicinity of the shelter.

On Monday they introduced Rich Deprez, from Cedar Hills, who said he relapsed after several years of sobriety after drinking in a bar near Rio Grande on Aug. 26. He was downtown to watch a boxing match, he said. It was the night after he allegedly committed domestic violence, according to a charge in state court.

A history of drug addiction caught up with him, he said, when someone outside the bar offered him drugs.

“As soon as I stepped out of the bar there was a homeless guy who offered me drugs,” Deprez said. “Got me to go around the corner. That was the first day I relapsed.”

He said he’d travel to Rio Grande in search of drugs, but that a dealer told him they were feeling the heat from the police-led effort.

“I believe we’ve got to keep going,” Deprez said. “We’ve got to keep just the presence down there.”

Unlike hundreds of others, he wasn’t arrested as part of the effort to clear crime from downtown. But he says he voluntarily entered treatment, which has been a central focus of the ongoing operation.

According to the information provided: 70 people have entered treatment through Salt Lake County’s new drug court program. Nearly 200 treatment beds were added since Aug. 14, 2017, when the operation began, and more are on the way.

Through the third and final phase, 14 people have found jobs and 100 have plans to find employment, with help from state caseworkers. Businesses willing to hire homeless residents have posted 48 jobs.

“It’s about one person, it’s about one family at a time,” Cox said. “When drugs are readily available, when they’re presented to you just by walking down the street, it becomes that much harder for people to keep their commitments and stay sober.”