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Operation Rio Grande shifts focus from arrests to treatment

SALT LAKE CITY – Day five of Operation Rio Grande is in the books and officials say over 280 arrests were made in the first four days, alone.  However, they also say they want to change gears slightly, and emphasize how the homeless population can get treatment for mental health issues or substance addiction if they need it.

Officials with the operation say they’ve noticed a growing need within the last couple of days.  There’s an increasing number of people addicted to drugs that are getting more desperate for help after their drug suppliers were arrested.  Department of Human Services Executive Director Ann Williamson says all of the treatment they have available is being offered.  “From immediate crisis triage counseling to stabilizing that individual,” she says.

However, treatment beds are privately funded, and it takes more time to get them than it would take to find a jail bed.  Williamson says, “In partnership with Lana Dalton and the Community Connection Center, we have long identified individuals who have said, ‘When treatment beds are available, I would like to be able to be serviced in that way.’”

The operation, as a whole, is getting criticism from some people who work with the homeless.  Bernie Hart organizes a Tai Chi class near Rio Grande.  In his opinion, police have been rough with people in Pioneer Park.  Hart says, “I would use the word ‘harassment,’ of a systematic over-intensive enforcement of the law directed at one particular population.”

Department of Public Safety Commissioner Keith Squires refutes that officers are rousting homeless camps just to kick them out of the park.  He says if officers are there, they’re specifically looking for criminal activity.  Plus, he says they’re hearing reports of homeless people spreading into outlining areas of the county, but mostly where large groups of homeless people already gathered.  “If there is something that has happened in the Jordan River area, we’re working with whatever police agencies already has jurisdiction there.  The river travels through various jurisdictions,” Squires says.