In August 2017, the Utah state government collaborated with local governments along the Wasatch Front to implement a historically ambitious effort to “restore public safety and improve the environment for those seeking services” in Salt Lake City’s Rio Grande neighborhood and surrounding area. The plan, dubbed Operation Rio Grande, was three-pronged: phase one involved targeted and increased arrests of drug traffickers and violent crime offenders in the Rio Grande area; phase two would aim to rehabilitate these offenders; the final phase would finally provide these rehabilitated individuals with steady sources of income and housing.
Three years and a global pandemic later, the ACLU has accused Operation Rio Grande of feeding a “revolving door” of low-level offenders, primarily consisting of the homeless and impoverished, to the county’s court system. What resulted from Operation Rio Grande’s first phase, according to the ACLU, was a vast misappropriation of law enforcement resources for low-level crime, leading to what Utah Representative Ben McAdams described as “jail overcrowding and […] recycling people with serious addiction back onto the streets and soon back into the criminal justice system.”
The ramifications of Operation Rio Grande coupled with an unprecedented pandemic have led to mass homeless camp congregations that Salt Lake City’s Housing and Neighborhood Development website describes as an “environmental public health concern,” prompting the recent, highly controversial homeless camp abatements.
What should be understood about these camp abatements, their on-ground operations headed by the Salt Lake Health Department with strong backing from the Salt Lake Police Department, is that they are only the first half of Mayor Erin Mendenhall’s 2-phase Community Commitment Program, attacking what she says is “the most pressing and poignant issue in Salt Lake City every day.”
While the percentage of people living in poverty in Salt Lake County is decreasing, the downward trend has not been significant enough to outweigh the economic woes that COVID-19 has produced for so many of Salt Lake’s homeless population, according to the American Community Survey. Mayor Mendenhall pledged $150,000 to the 4th Street Clinic to help test and treat the homeless for COVID-19 when she announced the Community Commitment Program, but Salt Lake City residents have clamored for better appropriation of funding, one resident saying that the city “sees [the homeless] as a problem rather than [providing them] affordable housing, health care, and support.”
The main issue Salt Lake residents have had with the Community Commitment Program, however, has been the implementation of the first phase, what Mendenhall describes as a “12-week enhanced neighborhood cleaning program,” or the titular camp abatements. Despite the city website claiming that “an abatement is a way to ensure the health and cleanliness of a camping hot spot, but does not include citing the campers for violation of the no-camping ordinance,” protestors showed up to the initial abatement. Some claimed that Health Department workers, accompanied by police, were stealing from the campers. However, Dale Keller, who is leading the camp abatements on-ground, stated that “[the Health Department’s] focus is the public and environmental health piece.”
Ultimately, Mayor Mendenhall’s Community Commitment Program may not be the most pressing area of concern for West High, especially in this year of strictly digital education, but many of our own students and teachers live in the areas affected by both Operation Rio Grande and this recently launched initiative. One West High senior who lives in downtown Salt Lake City had this to say about the camp abatements as well as Mayor Mendenhall’s new program: “I don’t really see what [the program]’s gonna do to help these people. I wish the government would just realize that people aren’t homeless because they want to be homeless, but because they have problems like drug addiction and violence where they sleep and all these other things. I don’t like the camp abatements, to be honest, they feel more temporary than anything else.” Hopefully West High and its patrons feel the effects of the Mayor’s new program in a positive way, because the city could definitely use it in the aftermath of this crippling pandemic.