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Police Interactions With Homeless People Still Criticized Three Years After Operation Rio Grande

Russel Daniels for KUER
Salt Lake City and County are looking for a location to set up an emergency shelter in time for winter, as the city and county health department close down homeless encampments. But one homeless advocacy organization is concerned that putting people in a congregate living space during the coronavirus pandemic isn’t safe.

On a hot evening in July, Maria sat on a blanket in a grassy area off North Temple Street on the west side of Salt Lake City. It was almost 100 degrees out, but there was nowhere for her to cool off.

“I live here,” she said. “I’m homeless.”

Maria, who asked KUER not to use her last name for fear of being arrested, said she hasn’t had a dependable place to live in Utah’s capital city for the past 30 years.

She used to camp near The Road Home shelter in Salt Lake’s Rio Grande neighborhood but has been staying on North Temple since the start of Operation Rio Grande — a city, county and state-led effort to address crime and homelessness in downtown Salt Lake.

“It's been pretty crappy because there’s nowhere to go,” she said. “They chase us from one spot to another to another to another. It's like they just want to get rid of us. And I don't understand — where is it they want us to go.”

The Road Home on Rio Grande Street was once the main homeless shelter in Salt Lake, but part of the operation included the creation of three smaller centers throughout the valley — and ultimately, The Road Home’s closure.

David Litvack, senior policy advisor for the Salt Lake City Mayor’s office, said that caused people to spread out to different parts of the city. He said it has also led to more drug and sex trafficking in the North Temple area.

Data from the Salt Lake City Police Department show that arrests shifted from the Rio Grande neighborhood of Salt Lake City to the west side of the North Temple area. Arrests increased in North Temple when Operation Rio Grande started in 2017. | Source: Salt Lake City Police Department

“So, just like across other areas of the city, as we've seen criminal activity encampments pop up or move around, we've used multiple strategies to try and address that,” Litvack said

In August, Litvack told the state Legislature’s Criminal Code Evaluation Task Force that Salt Lake City has increased its police presence on the west side of North Temple in response to complaints from businesses and homeowners. But with that, he said they’ve also sent out more social workers to connect with people experiencing homelessness.

“It's not always about arrest or engagement with the justice system,” he said. “It's about using that contact to encourage and incentivize and work with individuals to access housing, to access behavioral health services, to access job opportunities.”

And programming through Operation Rio Grande has helped some people connect with resources. Since the operation’s start in 2017 until August 2019, almost 250 unsheltered people had been employed through the dignity of work program, 150 have gone through the drug court program and nearly 200 had been put into long-term housing.

Russel Daniels for KUER
Residents and businesses in the North Temple neighborhood have complained about an increase in crime and homeless campsites in the area, like around the Gateway Inn — and some members of the Utah Legislature have taken note. Salt Lake City has recently sent more police to the neighborhood.

Utah’s Department of Workforce Services stopped tracking when the new homeless resource centers opened in 2019, and those services were no longer considered part of Operation Rio Grande.

Throughout the operation, the state spent $16.8 million on law enforcement, $7.7 million on jail beds and $8.6 million on other social services, including work placement, substance abuse and housing programs. Nate McDonald, communication director for the Department of Workforce Services, said increasing jail bed capacity supported both law enforcement efforts and the ability to connect people with services.
“A lot of the great success stories of people — they were arrested, they were in jail, and they realized they finally had to make a change,” McDonald said. “That’s what got them into drug court, got them into treatment and got them on their pathway back.”

Still, a 2019 report from the ACLU of Utah found that in two periods during Operation Rio Grande, 60% of arrests were for low-level crimes, like drug possession or trespassing. And from the start of the operation until May 2020, the Salt Lake County Jail logged around 8,000 bookings as part of Operation Rio Grande.

But Maria said since the operation started, she hasn’t been connected to services besides being offered canned goods.

“Every time we’ve asked them can we get help getting our ID, or is there someone we can talk to about getting tents or blankets, or how do we go about getting on housing, [they say] ‘well, talk to us about it next time,’” she said.

Russel Daniels for KUER
Officials have noted an increase in homeless encampments throughout Salt Lake City recently. Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall has launched an initiative to clean up the campsites and ultimately shut them down. Community members have protested police involvement in the cleanups and want the city and Salt Lake County Health Department to leave them alone.

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, Kyli Rodriguez-Cayro has been bringing water, first aid supplies and harm-reduction tools to people in the North Temple area through the Sex Workers Outreach Project. She said the increased police presence has caused people to scatter — people she regularly interacted with a few months ago.

“When this pandemic started, it was already difficult to get services, get food, get hygiene kits, get any sort of financial help or housing resources to the homeless community,” Rodriguez-Cayro said. “And this makes it a hundred times more difficult.”

The Center for Policing Equity is a national nonprofit that analyzes police data and recommends policies. Chris Burbank, the organization’s vice president of law enforcement strategy, served as the chief of the Salt Lake City Police Department from 2006 to 2015. He said the policing approach with homeless communities isn’t unique to Utah.

“This is stop-and-frisk in New York City,” Burbank said. “All this is is we're going to label this a high-crime area. We're going to do zero-tolerance enforcement. We run up a bunch of arrests, and it never solves the problem.”

Russel Daniels for KUER
Operation Rio Grande led people experiencing homelessness to spread out from one concentrated area of Salt Lake City to different neighborhoods throughout. One community activist said increasing the police presence in the North Temple area has made it difficult to provide outreach to unsheltered people.

As the public reconsiders the role of police in communities, Burbank said it’s time to stop arresting people experiencing homlessness and start addressing their social and health needs.

“We have a crisis of legitimacy in the work that we do as police officers in this country,” he said. “Let’s start making the work legitimate and actually get to help people.”

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall recently announced a new effort to deal with homelessness where they’ll dispatch mobile outreach teams to encampments before shutting them down. Mendenhall said law enforcement will continue to be involved, but the focus will be connecting people with resources they need and making public areas safe for everyone.

It’s something she said residents in neighborhoods that have seen an increase in people experiencing homelessness, like North Temple, have asked for.

But Rodriguez-Cayro doesn’t have much faith in the city’s efforts.

“I don’t think this is a legitimate plan,” she said. “I think it is a way to pacify community activists and organizations. I think it’s just sugar coating Operation Rio Grande 2.0.”

Emily Means is a government and politics reporter at KUER.
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