‘Operation Rio Grande’ Marks First Year With Success, Struggles

Aug 14, 2018, 7:41 PM | Updated: 9:31 pm

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – Signs of success but still more work to be done. That was the message from Utah officials as they marked the one-year anniversary of the start of Operation Rio Grande.

“It’s something that is not done,” Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox said Tuesday. “There is no ‘mission accomplished’ banner hanging behind us, you can see that. This is something that is ongoing.”

The goal of the three-phase operation was to stop the lawlessness that plagued the streets surrounding the homeless shelter in downtown Salt Lake City and provide resources to the homeless population.

During a press conference, lawmakers, police and social workers touted the success of the operation’s first 12 months and talked about how to solve persistent problems going forward. They also heard from a woman who was arrested as part of the operation one year ago.

“[After my arrest], 37 days later I was in a treatment facility—which was like I’ve never seen before—and it saved my life,” said Amy Daeschel. “It truly saved my life. I wouldn’t be here today.”

The first phase sought to restore order to the Rio Grande neighborhood by cracking down on drugs. The second phase focused on providing mental health resources and treatment for those suffering from addiction. The final phase provided workforce training and support to help homeless residents find jobs.

Some of the indicators of success included a 44 percent reduction in serious crimes in the area, and a small drop in the average number of days that homeless residents stay in the shelter (from 48.5 days to the current 43.5 days).

In addition, 132 people entered substance abuse treatment through a new drug court program, and 106 individuals have gained employment since the third phase began in November.

Some of the challenges that remain were concerns that crime was being transplanted to other parts of the city, and that homeless camps were being established away from the downtown area.

Other problems have included a lack of trained social workers and safety issues inside the downtown shelter.

“There’s still illegal drugs being used down here,” said Utah Highway Patrol Trooper Jeremy McKenzie who has patrolled the Rio Grande area.

Trooper Jeremy McKenzie with the Utah Highway Patrol

Trooper McKenzie said his goal was to first enforce the law, but then offer assistance to the homeless residents and connect them to resources being offered through Operation Rio Grande.

“It just takes reaching out to them and talking to them,” he said.

While walking through Pioneer Park on Tuesday morning, Trooper McKenzie noticed something that required attention.

“I saw a gentleman with a needle in his arm,” he said.

Trooper McKenzie offered the man resources that could help with detox, housing and ultimately a job.

“Have you ever tried to get clean off of heroin and stuff?” the trooper asked the man. “Is it something you want to accept help for?”

After searching the man’s belongings and conducting field tests to identify drugs, McKenzie issued the man a citation for possession of drug paraphernalia.

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‘Operation Rio Grande’ Marks First Year With Success, Struggles