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Salt Lake’s ‘Operation Rio Grande’ homeless crackdown having a domino effect in Taylorsville

Oct 06, 2017 09:37AM ● Published by Carl Fauver

This bridge across the Jordan River has become a busy place for homeless people camping in Taylorsville. (Carl Fauver/City Journals)

Gallery: Homeless [5 Images] Click any image to expand.

“This has been mishandled terribly by Salt Lake City. They shouldn’t have let it get to this point.”

Unified Police Taylorsville Precinct Chief Tracy Wyant isn’t mincing words in sharing his frustration with the domino effect being created by the capital city’s controversial “Operation Rio Grande.”

The much-publicized effort to rid Salt Lake’s west side of encamped homeless people appears to be working. Officials say the city’s Rio Grande area is cleaner than it has been in years. Drug dealing in the area is also down.

But police and elected officials also nearly all seem to agree, the problem has not been solved, only relocated.

More than 1,000 arrests have been reported during Operation Rio Grande. The anticipated cost of the effort is expected to be some $67 million over the next two years.

But Wyant reports, as the homeless are being pushed out, many are simply camping elsewhere, including an increased number along the Jordan River as far south as 3900 South to 4500 South, in Taylorsville.

At a recent city council meeting, Wyant offered some sobering updates to Taylorsville elected officials.

“Our number of complaint calls regarding transients has doubled since Operation Rio Grande began,” he said.. “Public intoxication calls are up 50 percent, and suspicious activity calls, 30 percent.”

Wyant added, in recent months assault cases are up throughout the city, though not family or domestic assaults. The rising number involves strangers assaulting residents, presumably another byproduct of the homeless influx.

“This problem is not going to be solved quickly,” Wyant said. “Particularly until new treatment facilities are available, these people are likely to remain in Taylorsville—and other cities like West Valley and South Salt Lake—creating issues.”

In recent months, Unified Police have undertaken their own effort to clear homeless camps along the Jordan River. They were assisted by the Salt Lake County Health Department and a crew of county jail inmates.

“The trouble is, there’s thick bushes in that area,” Wyant said. “Particularly during the summer—when all the leaves are on—homeless people can camp in there and be very difficult to see.”

Some residents have asked why transients have to be moved if they are simply camping along the river and not committing any other crimes. But Wyant said ignoring the issue creates more problems.

“Garbage and human waste is a constant problem at these camps,” the chief said. “And, unfortunately, we also seem to always see an increase in bicycle thefts and propane tank thefts when the camps are around.”

The other big issue Wyant adds, is that whenever a larger homeless population is in an area, drug dealers are normally not far behind.

Police would like to see some of the heavy foliage along the Jordan River cleared between 3900 South and 4500 South. But they say private landowners in the area aren’t excited about paying for it; and even if they were, some of the area is federally protected wetlands, making it very difficult to legally change the terrain.

Also at the council meeting, Taylorsville City Attorney Tracy Cowdell praised Wyant and his department for what they have been able to accomplish along the river, given the constraints they face.

“The situation has improved drastically in the past few months,” Cowdell said. “For several days, there were crews hauling out trailers full of garbage. It’s just hard to believe people in our community live like this. But the challenge isn’t really moving people out as much as it is keeping them out.”

Earlier in the meeting, during the council’s public comment period, a resident who lives near Labrum Memorial Park (2000 West 6100 South) shared similar concerns, saying he has observed more garbage being left at the park and evidence of more people sleeping in their cars, or on the grass, overnight.

Councilwoman Kristie Overson asked Wyant what the council might do to help, but he did not have an immediate request.

“The city has been very good about providing funding to add one or two more officers to the department each year,” Wyant said. “We now have 48 sworn officers serving Taylorsville with another to be hired in January. I’m not sure if we’ll need more, simply to deal with the homeless issue.”

Wyant admits, the problem is likely to get worse before it gets better. 

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