State officials say funding for long-term homeless solution depends Medicaid waiver

It may take “millions” of more state dollars to adequately fight lawlessness and homeless in Salt Lake City and Utah, House Speaker Greg Hughes said Monday.

But there doesn’t need to be a legislative special session now, and come January’s general session Utah should have a federal Medicaid waiver, and be able to allocate $100 million towards medical care, drug treatment, and such for the homeless, Hughes, R-Draper, told UtahPolicy following a Monday morning extensive press conference where details of “Operation Rio Grande” were explained by state, city and county leaders and law enforcement.

Monday morning law officers from several agencies swept through the Rio Grande/Pioneer Park areas of downtown Salt Lake City, arresting dozens of individuals and offering aid to others who sought help for their mental and drug addiction problems.

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, GOP Gov. Gary Herbert’s “point person” in the multi-governmental, multi-agency efforts, said between 100 and 150 law officers will be down in the general area of Rio Grande Street (which may well be closed off to traffic in coming days) to arrest drug dealers and other criminals.

The site of the Road Home homeless shelter – where more than 1,000 homeless folks are housed each night – will become a safe haven for the homeless, and the “wolves” who prey on them will be rounded up, charged with crimes they may commit, and removed from society via more than 300 new jail beds being made available.

Also, over the next few months up to 200 additional mental and drug addiction “beds” will be found by Salt Lake County officials to help those in need.

Op Rio Grande Phase 1 3

Hughes and Cox said over the last two weeks – when state, city and county officials held their last large press conference – “unprecedented” work has been done to draft, and begin, a three-phase, three-year effort to solve the downtown homeless problem.

Many of the elements have been acted on previously, like four new sites named for homeless shelters/centers in the city and county.

Hughes couldn’t say Monday how much more in state dollars this all may cost – last Friday various agencies sent in spending estimates to legislative and gubernatorial budget officials.

“Those numbers are being scrubbed” currently, said Cox, who participated personally in Monday morning’s law enforcement sweeps, as did Hughes, Salt Lake Mayor Jackie Biskupski, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams and dozens of other local government officials.

The leaders came casually dressed to the press conference after being on the streets early Monday morning. They were briefed by law enforcement and other officials in the states emergency operations center in the basement of the Utah State Capitol.

Hughes has made news in the last several months by locating a temporary office at the southern end of the Gateway shopping area, where he and others have seen through binoculars drug deals going down and violence against the homeless folks gathering across 2nd South.

McAdams made news when it was reported that he went undercover months ago as a homeless person, staying on the streets and sleeping in the Road Home for several days to see the problems and challenges for himself.

The key to how much more – the GOP-controlled Legislature has already allocated around $27 million to the homeless/lawlessness problem – will be needed from the state depends on President Donald Trump’s administration giving Utah Medicaid waivers.

Medicaid expansion has been a tricky political issue for the Republican Utah House ever since Hughes led a battle opposing Herbert’s Healthy Utah Medicaid expansion program – which would have poured hundreds of millions of federal Obamacare money into medical health care programs for the poor and needy.

A much-scaled-down expansion pushed by the House and agreed to by the Senate and a reluctant Herbert would provide much less money. But that funding has been held up for two years, waiting for federal waivers.

Still, Hughes told UtahPolicy by November – at the latest, December – he and state health officials believe Utah will get the federal exemptions, and $30 million in state money will be matched with $70 million in federal Medicaid expansion funds – making the $100 million available.

Hughes said he wants to make sure all state departments and local government agencies sweep their budgets for homeless program funding before coming to the Legislature asking for more.

However, after such due diligence has been done, the Legislature will fund “the empty spaces” in needed programs, Hughes said.

Cox said without Hughes’ support and actions, the three-phase plan and Monday’s “Operation Rio Grande” wouldn’t have happened.

Hughes couldn’t say Monday how much that extra state funding would be, adding that if Utah doesn’t get those Medicaid expansion federal waivers – and the federal matching monies – the state will be on the hook for millions of dollars more.

McAdams has led the county’s effort to find more treatment program “beds” – or slots – for mental and drug addiction treatment for homeless folks.

Within weeks new 36 slots will be made available, with up to 200 more slots coming within months.

This will be a critical part of the three-phase program outlined Monday to fight homeless and associated criminal activities over the next three years, the officials promised.

Officials said as criminals who prey on the homeless are moved out of the Rio Grande area, cops will follow them.

The main, single man homeless center will be built around 10th West and 33rd South, near the Jordan River Parkway trail.

Cox and others promised that if criminals and drug dealers are down on the Jordan River, they will be arrested and driven away – in fact, there will be no place for them to move that multi-agency law enforcement won’t find them and stop them.

The final phase of the homeless problem will be extensive efforts to find jobs and training for those who are ready to help themselves.

That effort will be led by Utah Jazz executive Steve Starks, who will lead the public/private effort to train and hire homeless folks who “are ready to stand on their own two feet,” said Cox.

The Legislature meets in their monthly interim meetings Tuesday and Wednesday, and leaders said they would be calling follow-up press briefings each day to inform the public how “Operation Rio Grande” is proceeding.