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6 months later: Operation Rio Grande helping change lives, leaders say

Data shows progress, but still 'much work to be done'

SALT LAKE CITY — Six months ago, Rich Deprez wasn't homeless or staying at the downtown homeless shelter — but he said he would regularly go to the Rio Grande neighborhood in search of heroin.

Deprez, 36, nervously paused before telling his story at a news conference Monday, alongside state leaders Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, House Speaker Greg Hughes, Senate President Wayne Niederhauser and others.

"I'm sorry, this is nerve-wracking," he said.

Cox put his hand on Deprez's shoulder before he continued.

Deprez said he came to Utah from Florida to work as a carpenter on the Provo City Center Temple and give his family — his wife and five daughters — a better life.

But Deprez, who called himself a "recovering addict," said he "relapsed" one night when he had "one too many drinks" while watching the Floyd Mayweather Jr. vs. Conor McGregor boxing match at a downtown bar Aug. 25.

"As soon as I stepped out of the bar, this homeless guy offered me drugs," Deprez said. "He got me to go around the corner, and that was the first day I relapsed."

Deprez was later charged with domestic violence assault, a class B misdemeanor, from an incident in Pleasant Grove that allegedly occurred on the same night as his relapse. A trial is being scheduled in the case.

After that night, Deprez said he'd regularly drive from his Cedar Hills home to downtown Salt Lake City in search of more drugs.

"It was easy to get," he said. "All the street people had it on them."

But not long after, Deprez said drugs suddenly became "harder and harder" to come by. He told of how he was sitting in a room with a drug dealer, and news about Operation Rio Grande came on.

"And he was scared," Deprez said. "He was terrified."

Deprez wasn't arrested as part of Operation Rio Grande — but he said he did find help when an Operation Rio Grande worker who happened to be his neighbor referred him to treatment. He said he went through detox — which he described as "excruciating" — and is now in an outpatient program.

"It's helped me a lot," he said, adding that he wanted to share his story to "spread a message of hope" to others like himself, and thank those who helped him. "There's help out there, and Operation Rio Grande really (gave me) the avenues to get that help."

Six months ago, police made their first batch of arrests for Operation Rio Grande — the massive, multiagency effort to take back control of the drug- and crime-riddled neighborhood surrounding the downtown homeless shelter.

Since then, police have made about 3,000 arrests, but that number wasn't the focus of Monday's news conference when state, county and city leaders gave the half-year update on Operation Rio Grande's efforts.

Instead, leaders focused on the progress of treatment, housing and employment efforts to help people toward sobriety and independence — and aimed to put a human face on the people Operation Rio Grande has helped, whether they have or haven't been arrested as part of the operation's first phase to regain control of the downtown neighborhood.

"Behind every single number … there are people whose lives have been turned around," said homeless advocate Pamela Atkinson, standing in front of multiple TV screens showcasing statistics of Operation Rio Grande's progress.

"This is why we decided to do what we're doing right now," Cox said, thanking Deprez for telling his story.

"It's about one person, about one family at a time. Rich's story is the story of so many people," Cox continued. "We've talked a lot of those living in that area and struggles they've gone through, but this has impacted people across the state."

Since the operation's Aug. 14 launch, Department of Workforce Services officials reported:

• About 70 people have entered treatment through Salt Lake County's new specialty drug court program.

• More than 3,400 ID cards have been issued to access the shelter's new "safe space" on Rio Grande street, meant to disrupt traffic flow and create a safer area for individuals seeking homeless services at the downtown Road Home and St. Vincent DePaul Dining Hall.

• One hundred ninety-nine new addiction treatment beds have been created.

• One hundred thirty-three behavioral health assessments have been made out of more than 500 assessments.

• The county's new sober living pilot program launched this month has received more than 20 referrals. So far, 16 people have been placed into sober living, and seven new beds have been created with more on the way.

• Out of 538 individuals referred to short-term housing, 44 have been housed, 121 have been diverted from emergency shelter, and 189 are receiving housing case management.

• For long-term housing, seven individuals have been housed.

• Fourteen individuals have been employed through the state's "dignity of work" program," while 100 have completed employment plans, 33 are "work ready," and employers participating in the program have listed 48 job postings.

State leaders on Monday launched a new website,, so the public can track the progress of the operation's three phases: reducing crime in the Rio Grande area, treating drug addiction and mental illness, and preparing people for housing and employment.

"This effort has to continue to be successful," Hughes, R-Draper, said, adding that he'll be watching the dashboard to keep tabs on that progress.

Looking at the data, Hughes, acknowledged "there's still much work to be done," but he applauded the state, city and county for working to "make a difference."

Salt Lake County had originally hoped to have another 250 treatment beds by the end of last year, but it's taken slightly longer than hoped to expand both Odyssey House and First Step House bed counts. However, Odyssey House expanded by 112 beds this month, and another 50 or so are expected from First Step House next month, McAdams said.

Additionally, McAdams said of the 70 people now in the county's new specialty drug court program, the county spent more than $500,000 on them in the Salt Lake County Jail last year. "The hope is, this next year it will be much much less," McAdams said.

However, the county mayor acknowledged "the path to recovery is a bumpy road."

"So we're not going to be perfect," McAdams said. "But with time and patience and persistence, we will make a difference and we will change the trajectory of lives for hundreds and thousands of people."

Meanwhile, the details of Operation Rio Grande's estimated $67 million budget must be ironed out during this year's legislative session now underway.

Of what can't be "absorbed" by funds that have already been committed through existing appropriations or "offset" with existing budgets, Hughes has said a nearly $21 million gap over two years must be filled with state, city and county funds.

Over the next two years, state officials expect to pay half of that gap — about $10.5 million — while Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County officials have committed to split the remainder. Lawmakers must appropriate its half this year, Hughes has said.

Legislators are scheduled to start combing through Operation Rio Grande budget priorities during Tuesday's Social Services Appropriations Subcommittee meeting.

The speaker has said some additional funding requests for efforts related to Operation Rio Grande that were not necessarily budgeted from the beginning — such as the removal of 300 tons of garbage from the Jordan River — may come up, and lawmakers will need to sort through the requests and decide what to appropriate.

Additionally, Salt Lake City recently opened up its budget to hire 50 new police officers as a result of the strain from Operation Rio Grande. City and county leaders are also looking to ask the state to pass a bill for ongoing funding to support future homeless resource centers.

"It's been a very expensive endeavor," Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski said, "and one that we'll need and will require some sort of ongoing funding, and I hope we are successful in figuring that piece out his legislative session."

Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said the operation's budget will be weighed in a "robust process" starting Tuesday.

"I'm confident we'll get where we'll need to get because it's a priority," he said.