Operation Rio Grande may not be prepared, or be the answer, for homeless addicts

Story and Photos by HOLLY VASIC

SALT LAKE CITY – Operation Rio Grande is ready to begin helping homeless addicts as part of its “Phase 2.” Law enforcement agencies are well into the first phase of pursuing active criminals from the area. As part of Phase 2, certain treatment centers have received funding to expand, but clinicians in the addiction field say this is not the answer and infrastructure does not exist to support the client load.

Sit in on any Salt Lake Area 12-step meeting and sooner or later references to “The Block” will be heard. The Block is the nickname for the area between 200 S. and 400 S. on Rio Grande St. in Salt Lake City’s downtown, where illegal substances pass fluidly from dealers to users. Operation Rio Grande is currently attempting to eradicate the drug trade from The Block and the questionable activities that seem to come with it.

Rio Grande

The Rio Grande street sign on a grey Sunday, November 26, 2017, in Salt Lake City.

Salt Lake City District 6 Vice Chair, Charlie Luke, explained that the city, county, and state of Utah are working together on the operation, SLC is largely responsible for the “on the ground” efforts. “We can fund law enforcement, we can fund cleanup down there, we can do a lot with the zoning. That’s within our jurisdiction,” Luke said. “The county is the one who started moving money into treatment and things.” Law enforcement is arresting people who have felonies and those who sell illegal drugs, “we are not trying to arrest homeless, we are not trying to arrest addicts, we’re trying to arrest those who are preying on the homeless and the addicts,” Luke said. Cleaning up the block contributes to Phase 2’s goal of getting people help, however Phase 1 won’t officially end until June 19, 2019 according to the Operation Rio Grande website.

Odyssey House is one of the treatment facilities receiving funds from the county. It has multiple locations with inpatient and outpatient options. Odyssey House also offers “sober living” – transitional housing to help clients get back on their feet. Director of Operations at 7th Street Treatment Center and former support staff at Odyssey House, Melissa Welsh, has experienced Phase 2 first hand when people from Rio Grande first started coming in to Odyssey House. “We didn’t have enough employees to even keep up with everybody” Welsh said.

Odyssey House office building

Odyssey House office building on Sunday, November 26, 2017 in Salt Lake City.

Mary Jo McMillen, Executive Director of Utah Support Advocates for Recovery Awareness, has expressed similar concerns. “The homeless shelters are still experiencing drug use and intoxication.  The complaints I have heard are that there is not enough support staff for help with the complexities that people are dealing with.” McMillen said Operation Rio Grande was not prepared for the second phase.

Addiction has many dynamics and dimensions, Welsh said people who aren’t in treatment by their own choice are known as “compliance-based.” “They’re just trying not to go to jail,” she said. These clients are different than those in treatment by choice. “They go in there and they just bring the street into treatment, they bring the hustle into treatment, not necessarily the drug hustle but their hustle,” she said. Emily Abeyta, a Marriage and Family Therapy Master’s Degree student who is currently working on her practicum hours at Youth Care  – an adolescent inpatient treatment center – agreed with Welsh’s description. “I think that taking people off the street and dumping them in rehab is only going to be effective if that’s what they want for themselves,” Abeyta said. “The point is that you take them to treatment when they’re ready for treatment.” She knows this from being in recovery herself – with just over two years sober – and from her work and education. Since joining Youth Care she has experienced these situations repeatedly, parent’s put their kids in rehab but the child does not want to be there.

Yet, there are anomalies. A low percentage of compliance-based clients do succeed. “Some people, they don’t even know that there was help, and it’s like wow, there’s help, and then they rock it,” Welsh said. Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Lindsey MacFarlane, has also experienced this, she now works at a private practice but spent years at Wasatch outpatient. “I wish I knew what it was. If we figured it out, it would be like okay we solved addiction,” McFarlane said. McFarlane doesn’t know if what is happening downtown is the answer though she remains hopeful, “I think that there’s maybe people who will have the change that needs to occur and that they’ll get the opportunity to get help,” she said.

It is too early to tell if Operation Rio Grande’s Phase 2 will be a success or if addicts from The Block will receive and accept the help they so desperately need. Regardless, implementation of this phase was not as well thought out as addiction advocates would have liked. “There is not one size, or model, or approach, or intervention that fits for all individuals,” McMillen said. The importance of individualizing addition treatment may be something that Operation Rio Grande is only now discovering.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.