At one year mark, officials say Operation Rio Grande is just getting started

The multi-jurisdictional effort to help the homeless in Utah – Operation Rio Grande – is one year old, and government, civic and business leaders came together for a two-hour briefing on its successes Tuesday afternoon.

But there is more, much more, to be done, leaders said.

And it will cost more money than the $15.4 million the Utah Legislature has given, and the hundreds of thousands of dollars already donated by city and county officials.

Still, it has all been worth it, says Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, the state executive branch leader that co-chairs the effort with retiring House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper – who conducted a personal vendetta against crime in the homeless section of the city.

The most compelling appearance Tuesday came from Amy Daschle, a mom and former college overachiever who fell into drug addiction and homeless, who was arrested on the first day of Operation Rio Grande a year ago.

Today, after drug treatment, counseling and help from a lot of good folks, Daschle is volunteering and working as a treatment counselor, living on her own and a real success story.

But it hasn’t been easy, she told a crowded room in a Gateway hall that used to be a retail upscale clothing store – in itself an example of how the Rio Grande area has been challenged, both by homelessness and crime, but a struggling large outdoor mall.

Daschle was on the streets for two years, and it was her seventh arrest a year ago that finally got her into drug court, a diversion program, addiction treatment and a sober living program that helped turn her life around.

She became addicted to Oxycontin after a failed surgery; her husband left her and her two children, he then stole her children and moved to Mexico. She became bankrupt, lost her house and fell into heroin addiction and homelessness.

She came from a good, loving family, got married in her church and was living a normal life when everything seemed to fall apart after her mother’s suicide; and her life spiraled out of control.

“I was broken at the core,” she said, tearing up several times as she told her story and how Operation Rio Grande “saved my life.”

It is “terrifying” to leave life on the streets and addiction to “reenter the life of the living” – or a more normal lifestyle.

“Now I have a purpose” – working with addicts in rehab programs. “My future is brighter than ever before.”

It is easy to get carried away with numbers, said Cox, who with the retirement of Hughes from the Utah House may be taking on an even greater homeless role.

What ORG is really about is helping one homeless/addicted person at a time.

Still, there are metrics to show just how successful the year-long program has been. You can see the operation’s “bulletin board” here.

— 2,600 people added to the low-income Medicaid rolls.

— Doubled the number of in-house drug treatment beds for the addicted.

— 74 percent of those who have gone into drug treatment are still in or have graduated.

— Part 1 crimes – the most serious offenses – have gone down 43 percent in the Rio Grande district; down 26 percent in the city as a whole.

— That equates to 751 fewer Part 1 crimes, which in turn equals millions of dollars saved in policing, the courts and jail and prison time; with 751 fewer victims of those crimes.

— Special two-person units – a cop and a social worker – have made 121 “contact” trips with the homeless, with over 900 individuals being helped.

— 784 folks have gone into drug treatment programs, getting them off the streets, at least during their in-house treatment and many of them staying out of homelessness.

— 333 folks have advanced to the Dignity of Work program, and have personal employment goals, 106 with jobs already.

Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski – who at times has been at odds with Democratic Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams and state GOP leaders over Operation Rio Grande – said the downtown homeless program was not a failure of city police, but a system-wide failure of many complex moving parts.

“All of these parts needed greater assistance,” said Biskupski, who was praised Tuesday by other ORG partners for her and the city’s hard work on the issue.

And more work needs to be done in the second year of Operation Rio Grande, and for years to come, said Biskupski and others.

That will mean more state funding – this time ongoing commitments – said Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, who along with Hughes is retiring from the Legislature this year.

It is not clear yet exactly which House and Senate leaders will step up into the homeless leadership vacuum – but both men said someone would.

Overall, the leaders said there are now 32 action items to be worked on or accomplished over the next year of Operation Rio Grande.

While praising all the good work that has been done so for, leaders said it is back to shoulders to the wheel, with many more homeless/addicted people to help, and hopefully save.