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State leaders don't want to cast blame for conditions in Rio Grande area

FILE - This Jan. 25, 2016, file photo, shows the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City, Utah. State leaders were careful not place blame Wednesday for the years of lawlessness and unsafe conditions that led to a massive cleanup effort in a downtown neighbo
FILE - This Jan. 25, 2016, file photo, shows the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City, Utah. State leaders were careful not place blame Wednesday for the years of lawlessness and unsafe conditions that led to a massive cleanup effort in a downtown neighborhood at the center of Utah's homeless population and drug trade.
Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — State leaders were careful not place blame Wednesday for the years of lawlessness and unsafe conditions that led to a massive cleanup effort in a downtown neighborhood at the center of Utah's homeless population and drug trade.

Rep. Steve Handy, R-Layton, raised a question about the deterioration of the area around Rio Grande Street during a House Republican caucus.

"I don't understand how it got to be a crisis situation," Handy said. "It just seemed like a look-the-other-way for a long time. Am I mistaken about that?"

"I'm going tread lightly here," replied House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, who has spearheaded the ambitious initiative.

State and local officials from various agencies have taken a "no credit, no blame" approach to solving the problems, he said.

"We have not fallen into the temptation of really highlighting the blame of how we got where we are. I will tell you some of it's natural," Hughes said.

The opioid crisis might have something to do with it, he said, adding that 4 in 5 heroin addicts on the street started on prescription painkillers. Hughes also said camping in Pioneer Park became more prevalent after the Occupy movement took up residence there for a time several years ago.

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, the governor's point person on Operation Rio Grande, said it's easy to point fingers, and there's plenty of finger-pointing to go around. He said there are no homeless people where he lives in Sanpete County because they all end up in Salt Lake City.

"The state does a have a role to play. I don't think it's fair to just say, 'Salt Lake City or Salt Lake County, you didn't do your jobs,'" Cox said. "There's plenty of blame to go around."

Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan, said though state leaders don't want to play the blame game, people study history so they don't repeat the same mistakes. The state, she said, needs to make sure the neighborhood doesn't fall back to the way it was two years from now.

"Let me assure you, that just because we're not placing blame doesn't mean we don't know who's to blame and that we're not learning from it," Cox replied.

For far too long, he said, law enforcement has had its hands tied behind its back, and "we're not going to do that anymore."

Since Aug. 14, an average of 150 police officers from several agencies have patrolled the area around the clock, targeting criminal activity. Police have made hundreds of arrests in the beleaguered neighborhood.

In addition, the two-year operation is focused on arranging drug and mental health treatment for people living on the street.