In July 2017, the homeless population of Salt Lake City—especially in the Rio Grande neighborhood-reached an an all-time high. State officials—citing concerns for public safety—met with Salt Lake County Mayor Ben Adams and Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski to develop a plan to deal with the problem. The result was a three-phase $67 million plan entitled Operation Rio Grande. Now, a year later, many working class people wonder what the operation has accomplished.
The stated mission of Operation Rio Grande is to prevent and minimize homelessness. The first phases of the plan aimed at restoring “order and public safety.” Leaders earmarked $34 million of the taxpayer-funded budget strictly for police use. Accordingly, local police have made over 4,700 arrests of homeless people in the past year.
The second phase of Operation Rio Grande is intended to assess and treat the homeless community. So far, the police have entered 116 people into drug court and submitted 784 people for substance abuse treatment.
The current and final phase of the operation aims at finding jobs for the homeless. So far, 106 people have found steady employment. Leaders of the operation claim a 44 percent decline in crime in the Rio Grande neighborhood and a decreased average length of stay in the downtown homeless shelter.
Clearly, the results of the operation in its first year seem skewed toward law-and order rather than rehabilitation and housing. The biggest criticism of Operation Rio Grande is that the majority of funds are going toward policing and jailing the homeless rather than preventing and minimizing homelessness.
Another major concern is Salt Lake City’s largest homeless shelter—the Road Home—will close next year in favor of three smaller resources centers. The Road Home could shelter more than 1,000 people but three centers can only accommodate a total of 700. Lack of shelter will be a major problem during Utah’s harsh winters.
The tragedy is that Operation Rio Grande stands in sharp contrast to Utah’s former program for the homeless—the nationally praised Housing First Program. This social program was based on a harm reduction approach that housed homeless individuals even before they addressed the issues that may have led t their episode of homelessness. The program produced successful health, social and economic outcomes.
The program change raises some serious questions when studies have consistently shown that tough-on-crime stances are not effective in treating social issues. Why use $34 million from this program to benefit the police force rather than directing it towards housing and rehabilitation programs? It makes winners of the business class who demanded a police crackdown in the first place.
Revolutionary and progressive people must educate the community about better alternatives. There are ways forward in which working and oppressed people can unite and build together, rather than relying on officials in the pocket of wealthy business owners and landlords. In 2018, socialist Gloria La Riva ran for Governor of California as a Peace and Freedom candidate. Her platform demanded “Housing as a Human Right for All!” Her campaign garnered the largest percentage of votes of any third party candidate, showing to a growing number an alternative to capitalism’s daily injustices against the working class.
As long as the workers of Salt Lake City live in a system that pits profit for landowners against the human need for shelter and safety, there will be an increasingly small community of those who have much and an increasingly large community of those who have nothing. Operation Rio Grande exists only as a bandage on the wound of low wages, high housing costs and bourgeois stigmas toward mental health and addiction. Ultimately, the Operation only reaffirms segregation between the haves and have-nots—the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.
Salt Lake City should look to Cuba, whose working class-led government meets the housing needs of all its citizens. Despite the harsh effects of trade blockades from the U.S. and the European Union and the resultant scarcity of production inputs, there is no homelessness in Cuba. There are no landlords in Cuba — one of the first decrees of the revolutionary government in 1959 was the nationalization of all housing.
These social rights are not a utopia or an unreachable project. They are a living reality in other parts of the world and goals to which the working and oppressed people of this country can fight. Only a wholesale reorganization of our society can give us the kind of world in which no one sleeps on the street.