In response to the Salt Lake Tribune Article published on May 10, “Greg Hughes and Spencer Cox, facing off in governor’s race, at odds over who deserves credit for Operation Rio Grande,” The Pioneer Park Leadership Team wants to make the facts clear about who played a role in facilitating Operation Rio Grande.
Our mission has always been to advocate for drug-abuse prevention, homeless services and revitalizing Pioneer Park. We have been connected from top to bottom with homeless services since our establishment.
In 2014, the Pioneer Park Coalition set out to reinvigorate Pioneer Park, and quickly found ourselves working with others to find solutions for supportive and affordable housing. As we continued to dive deeper into homeless services, two problems became abundantly clear. The Rio Grande neighborhood had turned lawless, and no one was doing anything. We pushed and pushed, as the neighborhood took a turn for the worse, and were told no time after time. There was no solution or even talk of a plan in sight.
This narrative continued for 2015 and 2016. It took substantial movement from leaders like Robert Marbut, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams and Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, to bring the conversation to the table.
During a two-week period in June of 2017, three homicides took place. The Rio Grande neighborhood had hit rock bottom. Hughes moved his office to a donated space directly across from Ground Zero. In under 45 days Operation Rio Grande was underway. ORG would not have been possible, however, without all the state Leaders, all of the state agencies, homeless service providers and the Pioneer Park Coalition.
One of the great unsung heroes of ORG is Jon Pierpont, director of the Department of Workforce Services. Jon was the man behind the curtain working with all entities to provide the utmost support in every aspect of ORG. He and his team worked tireless hours to ensure the transition for all of our homeless brothers and sisters was as effective and efficient as possible.
Hughes made it clear throughout ORG that his priority was to ensure that those who were truly vulnerable were cared for, and not politicized. His leadership allowed everyone to get a seat at the table when it mattered most.
This kind of leadership has been gone from homeless services since he stepped down. In the first six months of 2019, the new resource centers’ construction timelines slipped and there was a $21 million budget shortfall. More recently, Josh Romney, a board member of Shelter the Homeless called the $3 million funding shortfall an “absolute emergency." Although Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox is the chair of the State Homeless Coordinating Committee, it appears he doesn’t prioritize homeless services. In the legislative session in 2019, the PPC reached out numerous times to the lieutenant governor to set up a meeting to discuss conflicts of interest on the State Homeless Coordinating Committee, to no avail.
In this past legislative session, the PPC supported HB 394, which would appoint a leader for homeless services. Status-quo is what led to camping in the Rio Grande neighborhood, to an open-air drug market and to those most vulnerable being preyed upon by drug dealers.
In the current state, those experiencing homelessness have become political hot potatoes. This does not facilitate the most important foundation of homeless services — accountability. True leaders take responsibility for their shortfalls. True leaders know that to create lasting change, not everyone can be happy.
For too long, the very difficult choices and conversations that come with homeless services, have been done behind closed doors. The more we talk about who deserves credit for programs like ORG, the more we allow homeless individuals to become policy pawns.
Dave Kelly and Rick Graham are chairman and vice chairman of the Pioneer Park Coalition., a non-profit whose mission is to help the citizens of Utah, through community advocacy, by providing solutions to social issues, including addressing homelessness and revitalizing Pioneer Park.