Pamela Atkinson: Operation Rio Grande is saving lives

Homeless people now feel it is safe to seek out the help they need.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Homeless advocate Pamela Atkinson speaks at a news conference on Operation Rio Grande, at Odyssey House in Salt Lake City, Tuesday August 22, 2017.

On Sunday, August 13, at the First Presbyterian Church, we celebrated Faith in Action Day. Instead of regular Sunday services, members signed up for a variety of service activities in the community. Twelve of us headed to the Rio Grande area to serve lunch to our homeless friends. We set up a table with food and water and I set off to invite people on the sidewalks to go down the street and get some food.

As I chatted with people on Rio Grande, 200 South and 500 West, I observed nine drug deals taking place, a number of people participating in drug use and quite a few people in various stages of drug use outcomes. Some people were ill and others were spaced out. I knew many of them by name. I was very saddened by this all-too-familiar scene. My homeless friends have told me that they don’t feel safe in the area where they need to access services.

Concern and fear amongst my homeless friends, service providers, area businesses and elected leaders has been growing, and rightfully so. Now Operation Rio Grande is doing something about it. In almost two weeks, the operation has substantially changed the feeling in the neighborhood. A number of homeless people have expressed their appreciation for how safe they feel and are accessing the necessary service and programs that can help change their lives! Instead of seeing hopelessness in their eyes, I and others are seeing hope!

Since the launch of Operation Rio Grande, in which Phase One focused on law enforcement, some people have asked me if we need to act with greater compassion. Certainly, compassion is an essential element to such an undertaking. But to make large-scale changes and improvements, it’s also important to be strategic. The combination of strategic thinking and cross-jurisdictional partnerships, coupled with a compassionate approach, are going to make Operation Rio Grande a success. I am so impressed with the collaboration between the state, county and city that made this possible.

Further, not taking action in this situation is not compassionate. It is not compassionate to allow drug dealers to prey on our vulnerable populations or to not intervene when addiction is destroying a person’s life. We must create a place that is safe for our homeless friends to access services, and support their needs when they are ready to get back on their feet. That includes the simplest things, like a meal, a place to sleep or someone to offer a friendly hello. It also includes more complex solutions, like access to drug treatment and mental health services, as well as assistance with housing, which are addressed in Phases Two and Three of Operation Rio Grande.

Here in Utah, we are not just tackling drug addiction or trying to get people off the streets; we are studying and finding solutions to the root causes of poverty and homelessness. State and local officials are working together to develop plans to reduce and eliminate the cycle of intergenerational poverty. The United Way and many other nonprofits have programs focused on children and families to prevent homelessness before it occurs. Along with Operation Rio Grande, these are all a part of Utah’s approach to homelessness.

Operation Rio Grande is making it safer and easier for people who need the services provided by organizations like The Road Home, Catholic Community Services, the Fourth Street Clinic, Volunteers of America, Community Connection Center and the Rescue Mission to get the help they need. And when we help our homeless friends access quality services, we are literally saving lives.

Pamela Atkinson is a long-time advocate for people experiencing homelessness and for refugees. She is an advisor to Governor Gary R. Herbert, in addition to the previous two governors, and an Elder in the First Presbyterian Church.