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House Speaker Greg Hughes speaks out in defense of Operation Rio Grande

A man rests in the Rio Grande area as a Police presence in the area has forced many of the homeless out in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2017. (Photo: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

After the American Civil Liberties Union viciously condemned Operation Rio Grande, Salt Lake City’s campaign to clean up the neighborhood near 500 West, House Speaker Greg Hughes is speaking out in the program’s defense.

The ACLU harshly criticized the clean-up plan in a report released yesterday, accusing the city of designing the operation to act “as a hammer” that treats homeless “like a nail”.

The report accuses Operation Rio Grande of focusing on imprisoning the homeless instead of helping them. More than 5,000 people have been arrested through Operation Rio Grande since it began in August 2017, the report says, while only 234 treatment beds have been created to help improve the people’s quality of life.

But Rep. Greg Hughes says that ACLU’s report is completely unfair, comparing it to a “bomb that they have lobbed.”

“It’s either manipulative,” Hughes says, “or they simply don’t know what’s going on around them.”

An open-air drug market

operation rio grande

The streets of Rio Grande, as photographed on Nov 2nd, 2017, in the early days of the operation. (Photo: KSL TV)

Rep. Hughes sat down with KSL Newsradio’s Dave & Dujanovic to talk about how Operation Rio Grande has transformed the neighborhood.

“It was indescribable,” Rep. Hughes said, talking about what it was like to walk into the Rio Grande neighborhood before the operation began.

The operation began, Hughes says, in part because of a horrifically violent few days in the summer of 2017 when three people were murdered in just nine days.

The neighborhood – which KSL’s Debbie Dujanovic characterized as an “open-air drug market” – wasn’t safe for the families and children who lived in it, Hughes said.

“Those sidewalks were so filthy that when the department of health … power sprayed [them], they had to … recapture all the water … because it was so contaminated and so dirty that it couldn’t go in our gutters.”

The city’s efforts to make those streets safer weren’t working. At the time, Hughes says, a teen homeless shelter had to be shut down because volunteers were too afraid for their own safety to enter the Rio Grande neighborhood.

“You had people that needed help that were too afraid to go to that area,” Hughes told Dave & Dujanovic. “You could, with a straight face, call the National Guard at this point.”

Operation Rio Grande

Operation Rio Grande, Hughes says, was “Herculean effort” to improve the neighborhood, meant to help families living in Rio Grande feel safe stepping outside of their homes.

Moreover, though, he says that Operation Rio Grande has genuinely helped people struggling with drug addictions turn their lives around.

In response to the ACLU’s criticism that the operation has only created 234 treatment beds, Hughes explained that they had actually had to fight against federal regulations just to get that many. A regulation limits them to only setting up 17 treatment beds per facility, Hughes says. The operation leaders have fought hard to get as many beds into the neighborhood as possible.

The operation has also introduced the Coordinated Services Card for homeless people in Rio Grande. The card, Hughes says, makes it easy for workers to know exactly how to help them.

“That’s not Big Brother,” Hughes says. “We can’t help people if we don’t know their story.”

With those cards, he says, it’s easy to help homeless people and those struggling with drug addiction get a job, job training, or get help with behavioral health problems.

Plus, it keeps criminals out. “An ID card is like kryptonite to a cartel member,” Hughes said. “They don’t want to be in that area if you have to know how they are.”

Hughes said that he admits the work isn’t done. Still, he insists that Operation Rio Grande has made a big difference in the lives of the people who live there.

“People live in that area,” Hughes says. “It is a safer place now.”

More to the story

If you missed Dave & Dujanovic live on KSL Newsradio, you can still catch their full conversation with Rep. Hughes on the Dave & Dujanovic podcast.

Dave & Dujanovic can be heard weekdays from 9 a.m. to noon on KSL Newsradio. Users can find the show on the KSL Newsradio website and app, as well as Apple Podcasts and Google Play.

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