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Operation Rio Grande's 'dignity of work' phase underway

SALT LAKE CITY — Calling all Utah businesses: state officials are looking for companies willing to hire the homeless.

Lt. Governor Spencer Cox and House Speaker Greg Hughes, among other state officials, announced Thursday the launch of phase 3 of Operation Rio Grande, coined "dignity of work."

"I will tell you of all the phases I'm most excited about, it's phase 3," Cox said. "We all recognize that critical to overcoming homelessness, critical to overcoming addiction, critical to just living the American dream is the dignity of work."

Cox and other leaders announced phase 3's launch in what was once Hughes' "war room" where Operation Rio Grande was conceived — the old Salt Lake City Police Department office at the south end of The Gateway mall. But now, Hughes said, the space will be called the "workroom," where job training workshops will be taking place.

"In order to truly help people get off the streets, to truly help people find joy and happiness in their lives, to bring dignity to who they are and what they do, we have to be able to give them opportunities," Cox said.

When the lieutenant governor was first tasked with putting together a team to coordinate phase 3 of the effort to bring Salt Lake City's most troubled neighborhood under control before the 2019 closure of the downtown homeless shelter, Cox said one person came to mind and he made a "phone call on a whim."

Steve Starks, president of the Utah Jazz, answered, Cox said, and enthusiastically agreed to lead the charge.

Starks formed a committee of state officials and other community members such as the Pioneer Park Coalition to help structure the program, which he said could not be a "cookie cutter solution."

Starting this week, Starks said four employment counselors from the Utah Department of Workforce Services will begin meeting with individuals in the Rio Grande area one-on-one to learn about their backgrounds and start evaluating for employment opportunities.

From those assessments, Starks said people will fall into one of three categories: those who may be addicted to drugs or have other issues that may prevent them from being hired, those who may not be ready right away because they need training, or those who are "work ready" who could start a job the next day.

As individuals "graduate" to being work ready by completing drug treatment and attending "workshops" slated to begin next month to help train individuals on job skills, Starks said they'll become eligible to find work.

"We'll track who comes and participates to these things, and if you've come to workshops and expressed interest and taken initiative, then we can start to graduate these people to more responsibilities," Starks said.

It's not clear yet how many people will be participating since assessments have just begun, but Starks said arms are wide open for Utah companies to join the effort. The more companies, the more job opportunities will be available.

He said one company, Okland Construction, has already agreed to hire 10 people from the Rio Grande area to work on a local project as soon as next week.

But now, Starks said his team is asking other Utah businesses to get involved.

"This is a big lift," Starks said. "This is going to take the work of Utahns coming together."

Maurice "Moe" Egan, a staff member at Other Side Academy, attended Thursday's announcement and praised state officials' efforts.

Egan said he has first-hand experience of what it takes to overcome homelessness and addiction to find a steady income.

"I was an addict, homeless and unemployed for many years," he said, telling of how he was living on the streets of San Fransisco when he was offered housing and employment.

But as a "practicing addict," Egan said he "turned that apartment into a drug den" and he was eventually evicted. He said he was also offered employment, but because of his addiction, he stopped showing up and was fired.

Once he got clean, however, Egan said having a job turned his life around.

"When I was finally ready to make a real change in my life, engaging in work and establishing a solid work ethic made a huge difference for me," he said. "I began to believe in myself again."