State officials: Operation Rio Grande making it ‘much safer’ for homeless

SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 Utah) – State and local leaders are now calling the downtown shelter a much “safer” place for the homeless.
They met with reporters to offer a two-month report card on Operation Rio Grande.  
“If you spend anytime down in the Rio Grande neighborhood, you will see that we have made significant improvement on the safety issue,” said Lt. Governor Spencer Cox. “We have been able to cleanup that area, that we’ve made it safe.”
One of the first phases of Operation Rio Grande was to get rid of the criminal elment.  Salt Lake’s police chief said serious crime like murders and sexual assaults is down 24% in the past month.  He also says lesser crimes like assault, drunkeness and vandalism is down 58% over the past month.
“But this is not about arrests, this is not about stats, this is about compassion and outreach,” said Chief Mike Brown. 
He said the police department is beginning a pilot program that teams a police officer with a social worker during patrols.   That approach is part of phase two in which those arrested are interviewed to see whether they should be channeled into drug addition programs instead of jail.
While homeless advocates claimed there are more women in need of shelter from a year ago, the safety factor comes into play.
Pamela Atkinson said those considered truly homeless are now coming in for help.  And she said last week after walk through the shelter area she noticed a big difference.
“What a complete contrast,” said Atkinson.  “There are people who are smiling.  There are people who are saying ‘hey Pamela, we are so grateful this is now a safe area.'”
Even the homeless are seeing the difference.
“I say it’s a lot better than when I came three years ago,” said a man named Skylar.  “This place used to have drive by shootings, this place used to have drug rampant, amuck all the time.  But now it’s a lot safer place for us and we can come out and sit and talk with friends.”
But the Lt. Governor said there are still challenges ahead. He said getting the homeless into housing and the workforce is the next phase of Operation Rio Grande.  Salt Lake’s mayor is pushing a $21 million affordable housing project.  It still needs city council approval.  And Cox said they will soon announce their plan for “dignity of work.”
He said it will involve three steps: pre-employment, day-to-day activities and a work-ready work force.   He said they plan to have more details about phase three in the near future.

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