With the inception of Operation Rio Grande, Utah’s politicians and officials are yet again gravely mishandling the opioid and homelessness crisis in Salt Lake City. Police Chief Mike Brown has touted the operation as a “holistic process to heal this community,” but the sentiment only rings true at face value.

Though leaders of the operation promised increasing treatment options and jobs for the homeless population, their efforts have produced 37 treatment beds (which are not even available yet) versus 300 jail beds. This alone speaks volumes. Operation Rio Grande feels reminiscent of Reagan-era tactics; Utah’s War on Drugs punishes not only drug dealers and criminals, but also mentally ill people stuck in a cycle of addiction. Law enforcement’s role in this process is much too large, considering police training around issues like mental health and addiction are often minimal. Notably, there is a disturbing trend in The United States of law enforcement officers killing mentally ill/disabled people who are seeking their help.  

Operation Rio Grande and the continued criminalization of the homeless population will only lead to more crime, more addiction, and more division.

Do you want to understand the true goal of Operation Rio Grande? This quote from Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams sums it up: “I want to say to residents of Salt Lake City, come back. Shop at the businesses, eat at the restaurants. It is safe and you can come here and you can enjoy the Rio Grande area.”

Quite frankly, as a resident of Salt Lake City with mental health disabilities, I am appalled. I am appalled that homeless people are treated like nuisances and second-class citizens left to dehumanize, displace, and dispose of. I am appalled that the focus is still property over people. I am appalled that we are still seeking solutions for symptoms rather than causes.

Mental illness perpetuates the cycle of homelessness, so the primary goal of any program must be rehabilitation.

Our community will not create a successful operation as long as our conversations about mental illness and homelessness remain clouded by harmful stigmas and misconceptions. Our elected officials may speak with confidence, but all in all, they float on the surface of extremely complex issues. According to The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, co-occurring disorders (such as drug addiction and other mental illnesses) are very common among the homeless population. In addition, mental illness is the third largest cause for homelessness, with 20 to 25 percent experiencing severe mental illness.

Mental illness and drug addiction are often lifelong struggles.They are disabilities. They neither have a cure nor a one-size-fits-all treatment plan. Our approach must take into account 30-day rehabs and short term prison substance abuse programs have very low success rates. Our approach must be compassionate, empathetic, individualized, and thorough, providing support way past initial treatment or imprisonment.

Drug addiction and homelessness is NOT a crime, it is a mental health issue. When will Utahns acknowledge that?