Looking for an insiders view of Operation Rio Grande? These guys are out there day in and day out. Check out this great short video where the Utah Highway Patrol offers a first-hand account of Operation Rio Grande and it’s effectiveness.
Longtime homeless advocate Pamela Atkinson says, “Operation Rio Grande is saving lives.” We couldn’t agree more.
The Pioneer Park Coalition
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Neighborhood Residents, Businesses, & Advocates Applaud Operation Rio Grande
Salt Lake City, Utah – August 17, 2017
Residents, businesses, and advocates of Utah’s Rio Grande neighborhood support efforts by the State of Utah, Salt Lake County, Salt Lake City, and other jurisdictions to combat lawlessness through “Operation Rio Grande.” This operation, which began Monday, is an effort to address crime in the area, while improving the provision of services to homeless residents, including children.
“We have grown sick of the ongoing violence in this neighborhood,” said Susana Clar, a resident. “Finally, we are beginning to feel safe again. I pray that these efforts will continue and that state and local governments are serious about maintaining this presence until this issue is solved.”
State and local officials have told the Pioneer Park Coalition that Operation Rio Grande is intended to last roughly two years and is focused on restoring public order and providing services to people experiencing homelessness.
“I commend law enforcement officials and our state and local governments for responding to our pleas to enforce the law here,” explained local business owner Tiffanie Provost. “We just want the same basic level of safety and decency that exists anywhere else in this state.”
“The children of the Rio Grande area desperately needed this action,” stated Dr. Clotilde Houchon, a long-time advocate for children experiencing homelessness in the area. “Having predators and criminals in the same spaces as kids was a recipe for disaster. I am also encouraged by the Operation’s emphasis on respecting civil rights and getting people the services they need.”
The Pioneer Park Coalition is an alliance of residents and businesses of the Rio Grande seeking to create a safe community and improve services for the homeless.
“We are in this for the long haul.”
It’s a hot afternoon in the abandoned lower level of what was once Dick’s Sporting Goods at the Gateway Mall in the embattled Rio Grande neighborhood of downtown Salt Lake City. The room is filled with over 350 people, including many member of our Pioneer Park Coalition, anxiously awaiting an update on what has been dubbed “Operation Rio Grande,” a three-phase plan to eliminate lawlessness, assist the homeless, return the streets to a family friendly environment, and return businesses to a state of success.
Lawless activity, centered around the blatant drug trade, has plagued the area for years, with the Salt Lake City police department doing their best to combat the problem. Their best efforts, however, have been little more than a bandaid. Without a bigger plan, each “sweep” or “cleanup” of the area has lasted only a week or two before the bad guys moved right back in. Enter “Operation Rio Grande.”
Monday, August 14th, phase one of this 2+ year operation went into effect. Yesterday, August 15th, many member of our Pioneer Park Coalition joined residents, business owners, lawmakers, law enforcement, and other citizens to hear an update from those who have been in the thick of things, especially over the last 17 days. We were able to hear from Lt. Governor Spencer Cox, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, Speaker Greg Hughes, Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown, and Public Safety Commissioner Keith Squires.
While each spoke individually about specifics to their department, the underlying themes were the same. First, they are in this for the long haul. They are committed. Second, this is an unprecedented operation with commitment and integration on the city, state, county, and private level, with bipartisanship and cooperation. Why do we not see this type of operation very often, they asked. Simple: It’s hard. But they are committed to the operation and bringing the Rio Grande area back. Bringing people, business, and safety back. Third, they need the public’s help. This is a transparent operation and only with help from the citizens of Salt Lake City and surrounding areas can this be a success.
After the individual comments, the panel addressed specific FAQ from members of the audience. We as the Pioneer Park Coalition were pleased with the quality and thoughtfulness of the questions as well as the answers provided. Transparency and honesty prevailed and we feel like this is an amazing first step to an operation that will benefit us all.
A few Operation Rio Grande FAQ and responses:
Q: What are the specifics of the three-phase plan?
A: The following graphic was provided and gives a great overview of the plan, which will move quickly. The first phase started Monday August 14th and phase two will begin Friday.
Q: How can citizens report issues and/or perceived threats in their community?
A: For non-emergencies please call 799-3000. Use your camera on your phone. Take photos and send them to Salt Lake City police. As reports come in, a log is created, people are sent to those areas. In an emergency, of course, call 911.
Q: How will the physical clean-up of the Rio Grande area work?
A: A daily schedule of street-sweeping and cleanup will begin August 16th and continue indefinitely. As a “spidering” effect continues to move the homeless population to different areas and you feel cleanup is needed, please contact the SLC County Health Department.
Q: What is happening to the homeless people’s belongings if they’re arrested?
A: The Salt Lake Police Department is committed to treating every individual equally, including our homeless population. Items are inventoried and held until they can be returned to the owner. Additional personnel have been brought in to help with this task.
Q: What can individuals do to help?
A: Learn about the programs that are available and make donations to support these programs. Do not give to panhandlers, that is one of the biggest problems that we have. It is now illegal to give (transact) with panhandlers in major thoroughfares. It doesn’t help people and is dangerous! Instead, give through and volunteer through SLCHOST.org.
Q: What are we doing to ensure the civil liberties of these people are protected.
A: ACLU associates are working closely with our government leaders. The Operation is very transparent. We are all working to ensure that those who are needing help are receiving the help they need and by not being forced to associate with those who are there for the wrong reasons.
Q: How has the homeless population responded to law enforcement being in the field?
A: As expected, responses have been mixed. Those with something to hide, who want to continue to live unlawfully without repercussions are obviously agitated. Others, those who have lived in fear and are victims of those who prey on the less fortunate, have expressed gratitude to law enforcement and others involved. The goal is that this gratitude will prevail and that we can feel that gratitude for years to come.
Q: What is the ongoing police presence going to be?
A: Once order is restored, we anticipated it will take much less much less man power to maintain the safety of the area.
Q: Employers have expressed concern as to how they can keep their employees safe as they come to work.
A: One of the greatest resources are the bicycle cops. Call 799-DNTN, and these police officers can address the concerns on a one on one basis.
The meeting ended with Mayor McAdams reiterating the end goal. This is a long haul operation. We must BREAK THE CYCLE! The criminals will serve their time and leave the jail with hope. Those who need treatment will receive it and leave without debilitating addiction. These people can regain their dignity, receive stable and affordable housing, obtain and retain jobs. And BREAK THE CYCLE. The homeless population is invited to come back to the area to receive services. It is safe for you here.
A huge thank you from us at PPC to all those who are sacrificing and working to make this dream a reality.
That is what this is all about, folks. We at the Pioneer Park Coalition are excited and committed to being a large part of the solution in Operation Rio Grande. Will you join us?
THURSDAY, OCTOBER 30TH, 2014
To: The Pioneer Park Coalition
From: Bryson Garbett
I buy land next to Pioneer Park to build condos and approach a local bank for a loan. They have absolutely no interest because of”all the homeless and the problems they bring to that neighborhood.” I approach another bank, one with whom I have done many business loans, and they tell me the same thing. I did not think there existed parts of Salt Lake for which banks refuse to lend, but I am wrong. The banks do not obfuscate; they will not lend in that part of town.
I then investigate what the city government is doing. They tell me they have tried before without success and that nothing can be done. I feel incredulous. The area is the gateway to the city. It is home to Salt Lake’s only downtown park. It is the neighborhood of the Gateway Mall, the Children’s Museum, the Larry Miller Arena, the Rio Grande, and many other notable businesses, shops and restaurants. Nevertheless, I find a city that has quit trying and banks that will not invest. They abandon a vital part of Salt Lake to fall into a downward spiral of decay.
I am now at a loss for what to do. I cannot build and yet I cannot simply walk away. I am convinced that the neighborhood can flourish under the right investment and care. It needs residents to give it true vitality and energy. I soon realize that banding together with all the other businesses is my only option. I know just the person to head it the Pioneer Park coalition. Scott Howell has a unmatched ability to work with people and get things done. One last pending issue troubles me. I have no real understanding of homelessness. What I see in the neighborhood is a lot a people hanging around, but I have no idea what they do or what else goes on in the streets. I know that I can never truly comprehend homelessness and all its devastating consequences, but at the very least, I want to learn about the services available to the homeless and what it is like to navigate them.
One Saturday afternoon I put away my wallet and phone- two things I never go anywhere without- pack an old duffel bag with a change of clothes, and walk out my door. No phone. No ID. No credit card.Once on Trax, in the free fare zone, I head toward town center. I spot a homeless gentleman and follow him to The Road Home. Once I arrive I know my first objective is to find a place to sleep for the night. There are plenty of people around. I do not know what to do so I to ask and am told, “Get in line there.” Only a few people are in line; most are just hanging around.
They will not let us in until 10:30pm, which is three hours away, but if I want a bed, I cannot leave the line. The fellow who pointed out the line to me soon comes over and gets in line behind me. We were line mates for the rest of the evening. “I’ve been on the streets for 5 years,” he tells me. Off and on he gets a job, loses a job, becomes homeless, and returns to the shelter. He is young and kind. His vocabulary follows the local standard with every other word a profanity, and he is not happy with his life or with being back at the shelter, but it is his fall-back and he is grateful for that.I learn that only if we are lucky we will get a bed. We are waiting for the beds that others were given earlier in the day but forfeit by not showing up at 10PM. Otherwise, the shelter will give us a pad and a blanket for sleeping on the floor. For the three hours I stand in line, I watch in amazement at what goes on around me. I am sure I am catching only a small part.
It is hard to describe the scene. Drugs quickly take the forefront- in a few hours I must see at least 45 deals. Little black bags, the size of a pill, are heroin and the pill-sized white bags are crack. Everything is a stream of anger, fear, tension, swearing, and the occasional fitful laughter. Somebody bangs on the portapotties because he has grown tired of waiting; other noises come from the toilets. There are bodies on the cement passed out, groups of homeless talking, warning calls for when police are coming, and police passing by but never approaching close. Others come, others go. All is in commotion, nothing good, and lots and lots of drugs being bought and sold.
I am staggered. These streets are controlled by the criminal drug dealers. The city and the police have no authority here. For a dollar, cigarettes filled with Spice- weeds with chemicals on them- will make you high for six hours. The little black or white bags are probably ten dollars. For three hours I watch the dealers selling unhindered. Money passes hands, then the drugs are exchanged later. Some buyers offer stolen goods such as shoes still in their boxes or clothes still with tags instead of cash. Some buyers are young college-aged kids who are clearly not homeless. I see a father pushing his daughter in a stroller make a buy.
The dealers use the line of homeless as their shield from the police. They use the homeless as their prey. I quickly realize this has to be the absolute worst place in the city for the homeless. I imagine my line mate lost his job because of his addiction, but his fall-back place is a hot-bed of temptation.
After long hours the line finally starts to move, but I am held up for just a moment by the person in front of me who is too drug-dazed to get up. The pause and my hesitation means that those with more experience behind me quickly move in front. I lose my bed.
Each person answers a few questions and then is let in. Because it is my first night, I am questioned extensively. I check my bag, go through the metal detector, and am given a very thin pad and blanket. “Find a place,” I am told brusquely as I take the blanket. “Where?” I ask. “On the floor,” she says looking at me as though I am pretty dense. I put my mat down and set my blanket down on it and head to the bathroom. The blanket is gone when I return. It is a long, noisy night on The Road Home’s lobby-room floor. By 4:30 AM I am not rested but get up. The bathroom toilet stalls have no doors on them. I will get used to it. They are steel toilets. I am grateful for them.
I am out the door and on the streets by 6:30 AM. Now what? It is Sunday. The ever-present drug crowd is already up and active outside the door with bodies on the street passed out or asleep. I am surprised by how much is going on. I learn it never stops.
I begin talking with some of the other guys outside who, like me, have nothing to do, and learn that there will be a breakfast at 9:00 AM at Pioneer Park. It includes sermons and clothing that is given away. After breakfast, it is just before 10:00 AM, the hour they start giving the day’s beds away at the shelter. I head back to The Road Home to get in line to get a bed for the night. I wait in line for 2 hours. This time I get a bed. They apologize for putting me, an older guest, on the second bunk but I just feel grateful to get a bed. I will need to be back at my bed by 10 PM or they will give it away. Guys are already napping, some are reading, others are watching football on the TV, some go shower and clean up. It feels orderly and respectful, entirely unlike the hellish street just outside. I spend the day talking and watching and sleep well that night.
When I wake up early the next morning, the floor is covered with men who came in during the night. I leave the shelter and take trax to Home Depot on 2100 South to try to get work. When I arrive, there are about 15 guys on the curb. That number soon grows to over 30. This is where you go if you do not have documents or you have run out of other options. With documents and ID you have better options. Someone drives up in their truck and looks for someone that can do stucco. It is not a very hopeful place.
I spend the morning waiting unsuccessfully to get work and eventually give up and take trax back to The Road Home to get in line to get a bed for the night. I am successful and it feels good to have a bed again for the night. I go next door and have lunch at Vinney’s (St. Vincent): two hotdogs with french fries and a small glass of milk. I spend the afternoon at the Catholic center where there are movies, showers, and counselors. But most people just hung around outside in the street in the thick of the drugs.
I get in line with everyone else at 4:00 PM for dinner at 5:30 PM. We are served chili on top of the leftover fries from lunch with a brownie and bologna sandwich. As I get up to take my tray to the clean-up counter, I am stopped by a guy who asks if he can have my brownie. He is hungry for treats.
That night as I head back to the shelter I run the usual gauntlet of drug dealers. I am grateful I do not have to stay in line outside for three hours like the first night, and find guys watching TV, reading and sleeping inside. I try to read for a while and then go to sleep. Again, in the morning when I wake up there are guys everywhere on the floor with mats. I am out by 4:30 AM on the street. The scene is the same. I am approached three times to buy drugs. Bodies are on the ground, others are just drifting around stoned and high. Trax does not run that early so I walk back to my life and my home.
his started out as a problem I saw with Pioneer Park, but I found a much bigger problem. I found in my city the most disgusting place I have ever been in my life. The police have no control, and the homeless are the victims of the city’s ugly neglect. The Road Home and its neighboring services are where the homeless go for help, but what the homeless are surrounded with on the streets is an appalling nightmare. The crime and drugs needs to stop. If we are really interested in the homeless we cannot let it continue
Rolly: Searching for hope amid Salt Lake City’s homeless
By Paul Rolly
Monday, December 22nd, 2015 – The Salt Lake Tribune