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A Look At Operation Rio Grande, One Year Later

A woman on the sidewalk is helped by an officer and paramedic.
Whittney Evans / KUER
KUER reporter Whittney Evans joined a Utah Highway Patrol Trooper on a ride along through Salt Lake's Rio Grande neighborhood Tuesday morning. This week marks the one year anniversary of when the operation began.

Tuesday morning, Utah Highway Patrol Trooper Jeremy McKenzie is making his rounds through the Rio Grande neighborhood. He surveys the streets for criminal activity and people who need help. Last year it was a lot easier to spot someone smoking spice or injecting heroin on the sidewalk. It's still a rough neighborhood, he says, but it's much safer now.

"And I believe that it's due to the constant presence of law enforcement down here," he says.

McKenzie drives around the block a couple of times, pointing out the Portland Loos, a couple of free-standing restrooms that a client at The Road Home is hired to clean and maintain.

There's still some trash scattered around and people are dragging their belongings on the ground. But there's no longer an uneasy buzz of activity.

McKenzie leaves Rio Grande Street and heads over to North Temple just west of downtown, where a lot of the criminal element has shifted since Operation Rio Grande began. There's a woman on the sidewalk whose pants are covered in blood and it's attracting flies. McKenzie stops the car and approaches her with bandages.

"What's happening here is his lady has MRSA," he says. It's turned into a staph infection and her sores have ruptured and she can't stop the bleeding.

The woman tells McKenzie she uses heroin to deal with the pain because doctors won't prescribe her any opioids. Within minutes, an ambulance arrives, along with a doctor from the Fourth Street Clinic, which provides health care to homeless people.

Four days a week, McKenzie interacts with people who are living a blurry existence between criminality and personal crisis. Operation Rio Grande has brought more resources to them.

The panel of state and city leaders.From left to right, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, Utah State Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams discussed the successes and shortcomings of Operation Rio Grande Tuesday.
Credit Whittney Evans / KUER

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One year ago, this week, local and state leaders launched Operation Rio Grande in Salt Lake City with the goal of improving public safety and reducing homelessness. It included three objectives: restoring public safety in the Rio Grande neighborhood where The Road Home shelter is located, helping people struggling with mental health and substance abuse issues and helping people find work.

At a press conference on Tuesday, operation leaders outlined some of the successes and shortcomings of the operation.

Officials said more than 5,000 people have been arrested in Operation Rio Grande. Salt Lake County reported that about 780 people have entered drug treatment, and a new sober living program and expungement initiatives are helping people continue their recovery.

Matthew Melville, Homeless Services Director at Catholic Community Services, said most of his clients tell him they feel more comfortable coming in for resources.

"The streets aren't completely safe," he said. "It probably never will be. But we can tell from what we're asking them about our services that they are feeling safe. That there has been a change."

Lt. Governor Spencer Cox said he's pleased, but there is more work to be done.

"There is no mission accomplished banner hanging behind us," Cox said. "This is something that is ongoing."

In the year ahead, leaders want to create more affordable housing in the state and recruit social workers to handle the increasing workload as more and more people come in for services.

At the same time, the state will be transitioning to a new shelter model in June 2019, when three new shelters are scheduled to open, replacing The Road Home.

Whittney Evans grew up southern Ohio and has worked in public radio since 2005. She has a communications degree from Morehead State University in Morehead, Kentucky, where she learned the ropes of reporting, producing and hosting. Whittney moved to Utah in 2009 where she became a reporter, producer and morning host at KCPW. Her reporting ranges from the hyper-local issues affecting Salt Lake City residents, to state-wide issues of national interest. Outside of work, she enjoys playing the guitar and getting to know the breathtaking landscape of the Mountain West.
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