Utahns skeptical of Operation Rio Grande

Local News

SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 Utah) The majority of Utahns don’t believe “Operation Rio Grande” will solve the homeless problem. That’s the result of a Dan Jones poll conducted for UtahPolicy.com.

Of the 600 adults surveyed, 61% say the operation probably or definitely won’t solve the homeless problem, 32% say it probably or definitely will. Republicans are the most optimistic, Democrats are the most skeptical.

The folks working on “Operation Rio Grande” defend the plan saying give it a chance. “I think we’re going to be successful,” says Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera. “It takes some patience. What we are doing is trying to help those that do not need to be in jail.”

“I’m not worried that the polls are bad,” says Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, one of the main architects of the operation. “We don’t do things because of the polls, we are going to do it because it’s the right thing to do.”

There are three phases to the operation. The first was to separate the criminal element from the homeless population. More than 100 law officers from a number of agencies are doing just that, arresting more than a thousand people so far. They plan to stay in the Rio Grande area through June, 2019 when The Road Home is scheduled to close for good. Phase one is not designed to eliminate the homeless problem, just make the area safe so the “real” homeless can seek the help they need.

Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, says phase two is where the real solution begins. It provides several hundred treatment beds for homeless people suffering from addiction and mental illness. “If we don’t get phase two right, (treatment for addicts), you’ll see a backfill of the drug mules reuniting with their customer base,” says Hughes. He says resolutely “this has to be successful.”

Phase three will focus on housing and job training for the homeless, another major solution to the ongoing problem.

“These things take time,” says Hughes. “Sometimes people that seek help aren’t successful the first time they try. So that is a longer running process and it’s one that we are working on and we are making greater headway than we ever have.”

Despite the skepticism in the poll, long time homeless advocate Pamela Atkinson has already noted some success as she occasionally serves meals at the soup kitchen on Rio Grande. “I know that many people are going to be given their lives back and they are already feeling that love and compassion.” She believes in the success of this program. “To see the hopefulness in their eyes is just tremendous.”

The folks behind this $67 million operation urge everyone to give it some time. Treating addiction and finding housing and jobs are not things that happen overnight. That can take years. Phase one, arresting criminals, is the easy part. It happens immediately. Speaker Hughes points with pride to phases two and three as the ultimate solution to the problem, but he emphasizes that they take time.

“The progress you’ve seen out there on the street, you will see that continue to grow.”

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