SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 Utah) Construction workers mingled with police, the homeless and still some drug dealers I observed Tuesday as Operation Rio Grande takes another bold step forward.
Swear words, fights, and people passed out on the sidewalk were replaced by the sounds of power drills and post hole diggers.
A FENCE IS GOING UP
Poles are being put in place to hold an 8 foot high fence that could be up by the end of the week. It will encircle the same area of Rio Grande already blocked off to traffic. The goal is a safe zone for the truly homeless between The Road Home Shelter and Catholic Community Services that provides the St. Vincent de Paul soup kitchen and the Weigand Day Center.
The fence will be covered so dealers can't pass drugs inside. Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes who helped mastermind Operation Rio Grande can't wait. "That is going to change the trajectory for a lot of people. Give them a safe place to be and help us help those who really need a hand up."
Hughes Tells ABC4's Randall Carlisle that there will soon be identification cards required to get into the area. He calls them 'services coordination cards.'
His goal from the beginning is to find a way to identify those truly in need and separate them from the dealers and criminals who prey on their vulnerabilities. "The days of being anonymous, the days when criminals could intertwine and be with those that were vulnerable and we didn't know the difference; those days have come to an end.
RESPONSE TO THE PLAN
Hughes and Lt. Governor Spencer Cox volunteered to serve food at the soup kitchen Monday night and Hughes claims he had many homeless people thanking him for creating the new safe zone.
On Rio Grande Tuesday we got mixed reaction.
Martin Martinez: "I think things are going to get cleaned up little by little. I think it's a pretty good idea."
Jonnetta Vierra: "They're wasting money putting a fence up. Why don't they use that money to get us off the street?"
Ted Granger: "It's going to create a safer space, cause there won't be as many drive-by drug deals."
Anita Wilson: "I think they should just leave it alone. I mean this place has been here for 25 years and the same thing has been going on the whole time."
CAGING THE HOMELESS
Speaker Hughes bristles at critics who claim it looks like the homeless are being put in a cage. "You had people with needles hanging out of their arms. You had people passed out or having seizures in broad daylight. Is that viewscape somehow better than a safe space?"
His unrelenting energy continues to push this project forward and he really believes there will be more and more success stories like the ones we found Tuesday on the street,
Ted Granger says he went through counseling and therapy with the encouragement of then Deputy Police Chief Fred Ross and now "I'm back to work and I have a place of my own and my life has taken off again."
Or Trace Bloomfield who came running up to Carlisle with a key in his hand. After 5 years on the streets, he finally found housing on Monday.
"I felt kind of hopeless, but here it is. Life's good. Life's good. I have hope now. I'm blessed."
Hughes expects to hear many more stories like that as Operation Rio Grande continues.
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