SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — When Utah legislators decided to make fighting the opioid crisis a top priority, they narrowed their focus to the geographic area with the most significant problem: an area close to the core of Salt Lake City, near a public park, and a place where passersby were nearly guaranteed to witness drug deals, illicit acts, and even opioid overdoses.
"Rio Grande was a cesspool, a den of inequity. It was a place few outsiders wanted to go," Odyssey House Community Relations Director Randall Carlisle said. "You could walk down there anytime day or night and see people having sex, defecating on the street; you could see people with needles in their arms. There were drug dealers openly in front of police selling drugs, people buying drugs, people passed out on the street from either drugs or alcohol."
But two years later, Pioneer Park looks completely different.
"Even though you see a fair amount of homeless people on the street, it's nothing like what it was," Carlisle said.
The area in Salt Lake City became the focus of a statewide initiative in 2017 known as Operation Rio Grande.
"Before we started it, you could just go to any corner, drive anywhere in that area and buy drugs," Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera said.
The $67 million project is a massive three-phase crackdown on the area surrounding Rio Grande Street.
Phase one: Restore law and order, with efforts to eliminate the source of the problem.
"Gosh, a good 100 officers went into that area and took the drug dealing out of the area," Sheriff Rivera said.
Phase two: With funding from the federal government, get addicts into treatment. That's where Randall Carlisle and the Odyssey House step in.
"If we wouldn't have gotten that financial expansion, thanks to the federal government, we couldn't have dealt with these people," Carlisle said. "So the situation down there would be the same today as it was a couple of years ago."
Project leaders are now in phase three, aiming to connect those new to recovery with housing and employment opportunities.
"Nobody can complete our program without having a job and housing," Carlisle explained.
The task doesn't come cheap, requiring resources from the city, county, and state, but recovery centers say the progress is worth the price tag. Typical clients at Odyssey House see success rates between 62-64%, but those entering the program from Operation Rio Grande are seeing a completion rate of 74%.
"Every one of them says, 'I was so sick and tired of living that way,'" Carlisle said.
The results, according to county leaders, are measurable and due in large part to a partnership among agencies at every level.
"We're no longer working separate than each other. We're now coming together, and we're tackling it together because it has affected our entire county," Sheriff Rivera said.
Tracking their progress is another big part of the project. They've made thousands of arrests, and increased the number of monthly check-ins at Salt Lake City homeless shelters.
164 people have successfully entered treatment programs, and more than 150 people from the Rio Grande population now have long-term housing and employment.
So is a project like this something that could ever work in Boise? Next Monday night we'll dig deeper into how Utah lawmakers got the funding needed to expand access to treatment, nearly doubling the number of treatment beds available to those who need it.