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Protesters decry arrests in Rio Grande neighborhood

SALT LAKE CITY — With chants of "homes, not jails," and "homeless rights are human rights," about 60 protesters Tuesday rallied against a crackdown on crime and drugs in a neighborhood that has become known for homeless camps and reports of violence.

The group cheered as speakers decried Operation Rio Grande, saying it targets those whose only offense is not having a place to sleep and favors arresting people over treating drug addiction. Many said they believe the effort launched last week is motivated by gentrification and the political ambition of Utah leaders.

"If they cared about the homeless, there would be nurses and doctors and rehabilitation centers coming down here," said Lex Scott of United Front Civil Rights Organization. Instead, officers have arrested or driven people from the area, she said, imploring the group to record interactions with police.

"We're not afraid of you," Scott said through a megaphone in the direction of a half-dozen Utah Highway Patrol officers who looked on from across the street.

The protesters gathered on the median near 500 West and 300 South, outside the Rio Grande building, which typically is abuzz and surrounded by makeshift camps. It is quiet this week after officers have made 423 arrests in the area.

Speakers at the rally, including some who said they are formerly homeless, decried a shortage of affordable housing in the Beehive Sate, criticized the state for rejecting Medicaid expansion for 100,000 poor Utahns, and said a stronger public health push against opioids and other drugs is sorely needed.

Deb Blake noted 300 jail beds were immediately made available last week, but no treatment ones had been freed up.

Others pointed to plans to develop the area.

"What you are seeing today is the beginning phases of gentrification," said Ryan Parker, an employee at the nearby Road Home Shelter who noted a new entertainment complex and Dave & Buster's is set to move in a block away.

No reports of force by police have been made, but Utah Against Police Brutality, which organized the rally, said driving vulnerable people out of the area without helping them find a place to live is a form of brutality in itself.

The group also criticized the operation's directors for not releasing a price tag or criteria to measure its progress in the long term.

"More services, more beds, more treatment would be great," said organizer David Newlin. "But I don't have faith they're going to follow through with that."

Jason Brentner told the group he was homeless and turned to opioids and alcohol to deal with mental health issues before getting clean six years ago with help from the Road Home and other services nearby. They set him up with a doctor who determined he had autism, a diagnosis that allowed him to get Medicaid and draw a disability check that helped him get back on his feet.

"Having a place to call home has helped me feel the safest I have in years," Brentner said.

The rally comes on the heels of a news conference Tuesday, where leaders detailed the next leg focusing on opening substance abuse and mental health treatment beds and creating a special drug court to process cases from the neighborhood.