It only took four days for residents of nearby downtown neighborhoods to appreciate the impact of Operation Rio Grande. It’s no surprise, to anyone, that homeless residents, booted out of the downtown area, migrated into neighborhoods not used to sheltering the homeless.
It may even be only fair that neighborhoods other than downtown experience the reality that is Utah’s homeless population. The excessive trash, human waste and noise is burdensome to whichever neighborhood hosts it. More importantly, it is unsafe; where the addicted go, the dealers soon follow.
State officials knew the homeless would disperse once forced out of the Rio Grande area. The question is, how did they plan to respond to such dispersement? Was creating a “safe space” for homeless residents to obtain services, but not be able to camp, sufficient to replace the parks and streets people were previously camping on?
If they can’t camp in the downtown parks and streets, they will go elsewhere. Like the Jordan River. Or your backyard.
The emergent need to deal with the increasingly violent lawlessness in the Rio Grande district made action necessary sooner rather than later. State officials, led by House Speaker Greg Hughes, saw that and got things moving.
But what exactly is being done to address the root of the homeless problem, including a dearth of affordable housing, non-livable wages and drug addiction? It’s not enough to go after the bad guys and claim moral victory when their victims are left to fend for themselves.
It is imperative that officials support, and hasten, the treatment phase of Operation Rio Grande. Providers are planning on over 200 treatment beds available by early 2018. But funding for those beds rely on federal approval of small-scale Medicaid expansion. Is there a plan in place in case that federal funding doesn't materialize? Like, for instance, expanding Medicaid without the need for a waiver?
Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams’s plan for a drug court, once implemented, will help stop the revolving door of arrest, release and addiction by offering treatment in return for reduced or commuted sentences. Officials cannot start that program soon enough.
The problem may solve itself as winter is coming, and many homeless will choose to sleep inside a shelter.
But with the scheduled three new shelters set to open in 2019, it’s not just a downtown problem anymore. Perhaps more stakeholders will come together to find solutions that work.
Because a problem affecting everyone suddenly becomes too hard to ignore.