Rio Grande Sweep

Lawmaker works to help homeless get off the streets

by Becky GINOS

SALT LAKE CITY—Not many legislators would walk the streets of downtown Salt Lake mingling with homeless drug addicts – but Rep. Paul Ray did. In fact, he made it his mission to help clean up the Rio Grande area. Not only to make it safer, but to get people back on their feet.

It started with a phone call from House Speaker Greg Hughes in 2017. “He said he needed somebody familiar with how law enforcement works,” said Ray. “I’ve kind of become the go-to guy on those legislative issues. I ride along with police agencies and meet the officers and I’ve gone back to places like Chicago to understand how they do things.”

Everyone knew the Rio Grande area was a big problem and Hughes was determined to do something about it, Ray said. “I can’t say enough about Speaker Hughes. I’ve never seen a speaker roll his sleeves up and get involved, it’s phenomenal.”

They opened up a little office near Pioneer Park so they could watch what was going on. “I spent six weeks in the evening there,” he said. “We laid out a base plan to saturate Rio Grande with law enforcement and start sweeps of anyone who was involved in loitering or illegal activities. Our intent was not just to arrest but to help people.”

Ray met with police chiefs and the DEA who was already working on cartel issues. “Salt Lake County Jail was full so nobody could go there,” he said. “We started shuffling inmates around and moved 120 people to the Davis County Jail from there. Our game plan was not just moving people but getting them services.”

Multiple agencies were involved from law enforcement to workforce services, he said. “Most of the problem was a lack of resources because people couldn’t afford it. It had become almost a drug legal zone. They knew it wasn’t enforced. We came in and said ‘you can’t let people camp on the sidewalks you need to enforce the laws we have.’ It forced them into services to help them clean their lives up.”

At first those agencies providing aid were concerned the sweep would force people away from services. “After the operation was over they were giving out more services,” said Ray. “I went to dinner with the homeless and 99 percent said ‘thank you, we were afraid to come down for services. We came back because we felt safe.’”

The Pioneer Park Coalition gave money for bus tickets as well. “If they lived out of state we paid to get them back home,” he said. “They’re not going to recover if they don’t have family to help them. We made sure they had someone before sending them back.”

Although it started in August 2017, it’s a two-year process, said Ray. “We still have the Highway Patrol flooding the area down there. We’re in it for the long haul. We don’t want this to be a temporary patch. We’ll stay until we fix it.”

In addition to Salt Lake, Ray has been working on the opioid crisis in Carbon County. “They are one of the number one counties in the nation for opioid deaths and suicides,” he said. “During the last session I decided we needed to fix that. The problem is their economy is so depressed they have no money to put toward the issues.”

Ray was able to get some funding from the legislature to assist with treatment. “The biggest problem is unemployment so people are becoming depressed which goes back to the issue of mental illness. We need to develop the economy to bring jobs back,” he said. “They’ve had so many deaths that they will lose a whole generation if we don’t do something. They need access to services. We need a delivery model down there.”

In 2018, Utah ranked fourth in the nation for overdose deaths, said Ray. “Utah has typically had a higher rate of depression and anxiety. A lot of people try to self medicate. Opioids are a good way to do that.”

The experience has been an eye opener for Ray. “This has been life changing, it makes you appreciate everything you have,” he said. “I met some of the most wonderful people who just had a bad spate in life. It could happen to any one of us.”


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