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In our opinion: Utah’s major powerbrokers are committed to helping the homeless

Lt. Governor Spencer Cox speaks at a press conference at the State Capitol as law enforcement conduct Operation Rio Grande in Salt Lake City on Monday, Aug. 14, 2017.
Lt. Governor Spencer Cox speaks at a press conference at the State Capitol as law enforcement conduct Operation Rio Grande in Salt Lake City on Monday, Aug. 14, 2017.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox sat across from the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards on Monday flanked by House Speaker Greg Hughes, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski and Salt Lake Police Chief Mike Brown, among other community leaders.

For months, our editorial board and the news media have called for action to help the homeless and clean up the area surrounding Salt Lake City’s downtown homeless shelter. We never doubted these leaders’ desire to improve the Rio Grande district and help the homeless.

But on Monday there was proof — a point person, coordination, a plan and on the ground action.

So what’s the plan?

The group — headed by Lt. Gov. Cox — presented a three-phase strategy known as “Operation Rio Grande,” with phase one already underway and aimed at restoring public safety and order to the area. It involves apprehending criminals who have long overrun the homeless district. Part of phase one also involves freeing up new county jail beds and swelling the police presence fivefold in the blocks surrounding the Road Home shelter. The police will have flexibility to address crime if and when it moves away from the area into surrounding city blocks.

Phase two involves assessment and treatment for those with mental health and substance problems. Phase three will be helping provide opportunities for work and housing. The city, county and state have worked over the past several years to put in place these latter two phases, which are tied to the new shelters scattered throughout the city and county.

For years, the Rio Grande neighborhood has had little to cheer about. Today, however, some of Utah’s most important powerbrokers are publicly committed to turning the area into a safe zone where crime is no longer purveyed in broad daylight and where Salt Lake City residents and the homeless alike feel comfortable.

Whether the plan is successful will be an ongoing question, and while it’s easy to launch an effort with media fanfare (Lt. Gov. Cox said they are not unveiling a “mission accomplished” banner), the true test will be to sustain these efforts over the next two years and longer if necessary.

And yet for the Utahns who have watched the Rio Grande district deteriorate or have empathized with the plight of the homeless camped out in the streets instead of seeking shelter at the nearby Road Home, today is an important step that should instill in Utahns a renewed confidence that their public officials can work across parties, egos, boundaries and budgets to serve the greater good, including Utah’s most vulnerable population.