Operation Rio Grande: One year in and millions of dollars spent lead to one question: Is it working?

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Law enforcement officers from several agencies increase their presence in the Rio Grand homeless area in Salt Lake City Monday August 14, 2017.

Utah still needs thousands of housing units for low-income residents. Tens of thousands.

State and local agencies still are working through a backlog of people in need of substance-abuse and mental-health treatment.

They still must quickly finish building three new homeless shelters, pick the groups who will run them and transition hundreds of people who currently find shelter in the Rio Grande neighborhood downtown to the smaller new ones scattered throughout Salt Lake City and South Salt Lake.

And they still must figure out how to close the gap when that transition results in 400 fewer shelter beds available.

These many challenges still lie ahead as the city, county and state continue their all-out attack on homelessness, open drug use and crime downtown, with a price tag around $67 million.

But there are tangible accomplishments.

A year ago, all it took for an addict to find heroin downtown was to know what shoes to look for. Dealers working for cartels in other countries would wear nice Nike shoes and carry a bag, according to law enforcement officials.

Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune Homeless gather with their belongings to wait out the day's heat near 500 West and 250 South in downtown Salt Lake City Friday June 10. While the mayor's commission on homelessness plods forward with long-term solutions, residents and business owners downtown say things are not improving regarding issues, such as drug use, and crime in the Rio Grande neighborhood.

That open-air drug market has been largely cleared out from around The Road Home, where crime had gotten so bad it led to the largest law enforcement undertaking since Salt Lake City hosted the 2002 Winter Olympics.

There has been a measurable increase in treatment beds and the beginning of a push to get employers to offer jobs to people who might be willing to work but bring with them high needs.

With the approach Tuesday of the first anniversary of Operation Rio Grande, the code name given to the effort by state and local leaders behind it, there’s one question to answer: Is it working?

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski discusses "Operation Rio Grande" plans with The Salt Lake Tribune on Monday, August 14, 2017. Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown listens.

“We have seen some creep into the neighborhoods. We anticipated that,” Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski said. “Even with the creep of crime moving out of the downtown area, we’ve still been very successful at bringing crime down all across the city.”

That creep has led to concerns from residents about whether Operation Rio Grande, while trying to address crime downtown (and in doing so improve services for homeless residents), simply relocated the problem to their neighborhoods.

But crime is down in every district of the city in the past year and down 25 percent citywide in 2018 compared with the previous year.

Paired with new addiction treatment, sober-living apartments, and an intense focus on homelessness from the most powerful people in the state, those who created Operation Rio Grande are touting its first year as a success.

“Everything that is happening in this community is happening because there’s a lot of thought and partnership that is being developed and strategy that’s being developed to address these bigger issues,” Biskupski said.

Some of the metrics are subjective. The state has added 243 treatment beds, more than doubling what existed before. More beds were sorely needed. The state has had enough capacity to treat only about one in every 10 Utahns who needs it, according to the most recent annual report by the Utah Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health, in 2016.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Forging a new path, Carl Henry, pictured with his daughter Heaven, 9, got treatment through an expansion and drug court that happened because of Operation Rio Grande. He's now in sober living run by Odyssey House, and he still volunteers at the Millcreek in-patient center where he got treatment.

The region needed any bed it could get, and the increase has been a lifesaver for people who have used them to get clean — like Carl Henry, whose heroin addiction cost him his marriage, his relationships and his teeth.

Henry was holed up in a room at the Gateway Inn motel in October — two months into the operation — when probation officers arrived. He said they did routine checks at the notorious motels in town frequented by addicts like Henry at the time.

He’d been years in the throes of his addiction when he looked out the window and saw the officers. He could have given them a fake name like he’d done before, kept on in the life that put him at odds with his family, his wife and cost him time with his youngest daughter. But he decided to throw in the towel.

“I was so bad they were like who are you? I told them my name. I told them I was a fugitive,” Henry said. “They pulled out the picture. They go, ‘We passed you like a million times, you look nothing like you look in this picture. It’s time to go in.' ”

It was a good time to quit. Salt Lake County had just created a drug court, where offenders could plead their way into treatment instead of incarceration. That’s what Henry, who was on probation in Utah and Idaho, did.

He went to a six-month inpatient treatment at Odyssey House in Millcreek, where he recently finished but still volunteers as part of his program. He’s also residing in a sober-living apartment, found a job and is working on finding his own apartment and possibly rekindling his marriage.

“It’s always a struggle. Life itself just in general is a trigger,” Henry said. “But when you’re ready, you’re ready.”

There are others like Henry. More than 100 people chose the same path and 74 percent of them are still on it. Hundreds are now receiving treatment as a result of state and federal funding and the creation of the drug court that Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams wants to replicate or expand.

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Shawn McMillen, the executive director of First Step House, talks with two men living there on Sunday, May 21, 2017. Local law enforcement has taken an different approach around the 210 S. Rio Grande St. shelter, giving low-level drug offenders the chance to receive treatment instead of jail time. Some who were either rounded up during three sweeps last October, or visited the Salt Lake City Police Department's nearby Community Connection Center, have found help in drug addiction treatment at First Step House.

More treatment beds could be on the way, thanks to federal funding that came in while the operation was ongoing. But there’s a shortage of potential employees who could staff expanded centers, and an unwillingness from residents to welcome treatment centers into their neighborhoods, according to Shawn McMillen, executive director at the First Step House.

“I am grateful for every dime we’ve received,” McMillen said, “and I still don’t think it’s enough considering the scale of the problem.”

McAdams says that, while the need is far greater than 243, the number of treatment beds the region now has is appropriate. There is a yearslong backlog from an explosion of opiate and heroin use in the state and across the country. The state needs to stay the course and work through that backlog, he says.

After getting those pieces in place, McAdams says it exposed other issues that weren’t apparent before the massive law enforcement presence that led to more than 5,000 arrests.

“Because we’ve gotten so many people into treatment and into drug court and addressed to a degree the criminal issues that were there, we can now see that there are a lot of frequent flyers in and out of the criminal justice system,” McAdams said.

“That doesn’t mean we failed. That just means we have a better vision,” he said. “There were problems right in front of our face that didn’t allow us to see problems 10 feet in front of our face.”

There are still people like Dean Thomas Anderson, 57, who’s been arrested 28 times since the operation started. Some are attributed to the project, others aren’t. Most of his cases were still outstanding until this month.

Desmond Jerome Nelson, 33, has been arrested a dozen times since the operation began, each time for drug use, intoxication or possession. And there are others who either can’t or won’t go into drug court or treatment, so they cycle in and out of the Salt Lake County jail, which is still too full to hold nonviolent offenders for long.

It’s unclear what will happen when the new shelters go up in Salt Lake City and neighboring South Salt Lake. Neighbors fear the problems that boiled over last year and led to Operation Rio Grande will simply be relocated.

The Road Home, Salt Lake City's downtown emergency shelter, saw a decline in people checking in from fiscal year 2017 to fiscal year 2018. The number of people entering drug court as an option for seeking treatment of chemical dependency or mental health problems has fluctuated.

Advocates worry about people like Anderson. Will he be a fit for the 300-bed men’s shelter in South Salt Lake? What does he need to get him off the street, out of jail, into housing?

When Salt Lake City helped a nonprofit buy the Capitol Motel on State Street, it was converted into a collection of three-dozen single-occupancy apartments. They were filled immediately.

That’s the kind of work that, while technically outside of Operation Rio Grande, is undertaken on a parallel track while the city tries to boost its supply of transitional housing, where people can go if they’re at risk of becoming homeless or are already clawing their way out of it. Advocates are looking at more, similar projects. Buildings with small units that get people off the street.

If they can get stable housing and hold down a job, they are on their way to staying off the street. And the state has helped get nearly 100 people employment through the operation.

By at least one measure, the state went in the wrong direction. This year’s count of people sleeping out of the 1,100-bed shelter climbed from 2017 to 2018. It’s an imperfect metric, since the count is done on one night each year in the dead of winter. But it was the second consecutive year that volunteers found more people staying outside, either avoiding the shelter and the fear of what’s within, or choosing to stay outside for other reasons.

And as the state continues its population boom, housing prices have continued to climb, putting more people at the brink of losing their homes.

Residents report seeing more people in their backyards and parks. Suburbs, once removed from the problems centered in downtown Salt Lake City, went on high alert as they studied whether they’d need to change police tactics in response to the dispersion of people throughout the valley.

“It’s really disheartening to see that there are new camping and drug-dealing spots showing up in the neighborhood,” said Amy Hawkins, chairwoman of the Ballpark Community Council. “This is despite property values going up, despite neighborhood watch groups being active. It’s not great and I’m not sure if we have good direction about how we can address the problem.”

Law enforcement officers, who have played a central role in disrupting the open-air drug dealing that preyed on homeless residents, say they’ll get to the disbursement as the operation continues.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Salt Lake City Police Department hosts an open house on Wed. July 25, 2018, for a new substation that used to be an Arctic Circle restaurant at 837 West, South Temple. Newly-assigned bike officers and a sergeant will work out of the new substation to better serve the community on the West side.

Salt Lake City Police opened a “pop-up” station on North Temple west of Interstate 15 after residents called and reported a perceived increase of drug use, prostitution and homelessness.

The police assigned to the effort — along with the residents, businesses and homeless service providers around Rio Grande — say the state made major headway at eliminating much of the drug use near the shelter, one of the primary goals of the operation.

“We’ve come a long ways in being able to try to connect the dots,” said Keith Squires, commissioner of the Utah Department of Public Safety. “Which gives us more opportunities to interdict a large criminal drug-trafficking organization and disrupt their operations to the extent we can.”

Providers in town, including those right in the middle of the operation, say they’ve seen a marked difference.

“A lot of people came down here because they knew this was the place you could easily get drugs,” said Matt Melville, director of homeless services for Catholic Community Services.

“That was probably the worst time ... about one year ago when we reached critical mass and seemed to be the worst that I had ever seen it,” he said. “The sense on the street is that it’s a safer place.”

There are still some who wonder if the state needed to spend as much money clearing up the streets.

“Obviously it’s a good thing to not have people shooting up on the sidewalk on 500 West anymore. That’s a success,” said Bill Tibbitts, who works for Crossroads Urban Center. “The question you have to ask is if we had to spend as much money as we did to reach that particular metric of success. I don’t think we needed that level of police presence that we had to make that particular thing happen.”

Most indications point to state leaders achieving what they set out to do initially. But as the operation falls in with the wider efforts on improving services to prevent and end homelessness, much work lies ahead.

It’s possible the cartels are waiting out the state and hope that, after the two-year operation ends, they’ll be able to wrangle customers into a central location to sell heroin again.

“There’s too much money to be made,” Squires said. “We knew that going in.”

It’s likely housing prices will continue their fast climb, wages remain relatively low and people remain overburdened by the rising cost of living along the Wasatch Front. The rental vacancy rate in the region is effectively zero.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Road Home, a shelter in Salt Lake City, Tuesday May 15, 2018.

There is fear that the region, which already has hundreds of people sleeping outdoors each night, will exacerbate the problem if it isn’t able to generate low-income units quickly. There are up to 1,100 emergency shelter beds available each night at The Road Home. But the Legislature has required that building to be closed by July 1, 2019, when the three new shelters — capacity 700 — are scheduled to open.

The state has had some success in achieving one of the main goals set for Operation Rio Grande — decreasing the number of days people need shelter, from 48.5 days in 2017 to 43.5 days as of July, according to state data.

Unless that drops enough, 700 beds may not be enough to house the average of 711 people staying at The Road Home each night, even after a drop following a year of the operation.

“The numbers coming out of Operation Rio Grande don’t show an ability to address the overflow that’s with the three new resource centers,” said Jean Hill, a lobbyist with the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City. “We need to start changing those numbers now.”