Find a list of your saved stories here

As police target Rio Grande, business owners split on operation's success

Save Story

Save stories to read later

Estimated read time: 6-7 minutes

This archived news story is available only for your personal, non-commercial use. Information in the story may be outdated or superseded by additional information. Reading or replaying the story in its archived form does not constitute a republication of the story.

SALT LAKE CITY — Four days into a massive effort to clean both unsafe and unsanitary conditions from Salt Lake's Rio Grande district, business owners bordering Pioneer Park are split about the initiative's potential.

In the recently purchased Rio Grande Cafe in the historic downtown train station, Byron Loveall said the increased police presence is already reassuring customers and drawing in more business.

But a little further down along the park's edge, Bruges Waffles and Frites owner Pierre Vandamme said he has seen too much escalating crime and squalor through the years to believe the large effort will ultimately be sustainable or effective.

With daily street cleaning underway and an average 150 officers from multiple jurisdictions patrolling the area around the Road Home shelter and other service hubs, the state's epicenter of homelessness and drug trade is noticeably quieter than it has been in years.

The area was cleared out as part of Operation Rio Grande, a two-year plan meant to stabilize the volatile downtown district by targeting criminals while helping the growing homeless population in the area.

Speaking in Loveall's restaurant Thursday, Department of Public Safety Commissioner Keith Squires announced that police booked 71 people in jail during the operation's third day, bringing the arrest total up to 229.

While law enforcement said following the effort's first day that 33 people booked had already been released, they have not specified since just how many people are in custody. No details have been provided about the circumstances leading to the arrests.

Loveall, who purchased the Rio Grande Cafe in February, praised police for their work, saying the effort is making it possible for more people to visit the iconic neighborhood.

"We're up 30 percent over last week," Loveall said. "(Customers) have seen it on the news, they've seen that things are changing. All you have to do is drive around the block and you can see that things are changing."

The restaurant's previous owners told KSL las fall that deteriorating conditions — including aggressive panhandling, unabashed drug use and filthy street conditions — had frightened customers and left the business in steady decline.

Loveall voiced his hope that a sustained law enforcement presence over the next two years will keep the peace, while upcoming humanitarian efforts bring important help to the homeless individuals who frequent the area in order to revitalize Rio Grande.

"The more customers, the more people that come down here, the better. You remove the businesses, you remove the people, and it becomes very dark," Loveall said. "We wanted to bring a little light to the neighborhood and keep the lights on."

Loveall's praise was echoed by leaders of Salt Lake's Downtown Alliance and Pioneer Park Coalition, which represent area businesses.

Vandamme, however, had closed his shop for the day for needed maintenance, including installing a new security system and cameras to monitor what he said has been an unimpeded escalation in crime and filth. While local leaders had attempted to patch the wound, he said, it wasn't until a recent spate of murders grabbed headlines that the state took interest.

"I'm a little bit disgusted," Vandamme said of the initiative. "They should have taken care of it a year ago, you know. I've been knocking on everyone's doors, but no one offered any help."

While the restaurant's cameras weren't working, Vandamme said he would park in his car outside for hours through the night to keep an eye on things, watching as homeless men and women stumbled about and expensive cars cruised through to make drug deals.

Meanwhile, he said, business has dropped off sharply and it has become increasingly difficult to find and keep employees.

"We have people pulling knives on our customers, screaming at them. We've seen so much here in this year and a half. I've been robbed three times, I've (almost) been personally attacked. It's constant," Vandamme said.

Though the state is seeking Medicaid waivers that could make $100 million available for treatment and services to back the police effort, Vandamme believes that without robust tax increases, the ambitious Operation Rio Grande cannot be sustained.

While the collaborative policing phase of the operation has been underway since Monday, the second and third phases of the plan, promising treatment and job training for those in need, are not yet online.

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who earlier this year was named the state's point person on responding to homelessness, said more information will be released Friday about those upcoming efforts.

Earlier this week, Cox announced that 37 treatment beds are being put in place for those who are addicted or mentally ill, while as many as 200 total treatment beds could be established in coming months.

However, the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah has criticized the operation, which opened up 300 beds in the Salt Lake County Jail to use in the initiative but has yet to offer any care.

To make the required 300 beds available, men and women participating in the CATS program — Correctional Assessment and Treatment Services — were moved to facilities in other counties. The 120 men participating in the program were moved incrementally to Davis County Jail, while about half of the 40 women enrolled were moved to the Weber County Jail.

Adam Cohen, CEO of the Odyssey House, which runs the CATS program, said that while service providers were unable to access the Davis County Jail on Monday and Tuesday to provide counseling for the men who were there at the time, the men had assignments to complete on their own and all programming has since been restored.

The program is based on counseling and group therapy, not medication.

Cohen said the female participants in the program who were transferred to Weber County Jail are expected to be moved back to the Salt Lake facility early next week. Because their return is imminent, Odyssey House is not going through the necessary approval process to admit its service providers to Weber County Jail, but will wait for the women to return.

Because the CATS program is sometimes interrupted for days at a time due to routine jail occurrences, such as a security issue or a lockdown, Cohen said there is not concern that this disruption will have a negative impact on the participants.

Moving forward, Cohen said he hopes Operation Rio Grande will help raise awareness about the immense need for substance abuse treatment in the state.

"My hope is that this is going to be a continued issue that's going to be on the minds of leaders, and there is going to be a coordinated effort to address the problem systemically," Cohen said. "I'm very happy to participate in that process, that we're finally going to address this issue once and for all."

Related stories

Most recent Utah stories

Related topics

McKenzie Romero


    Get informative articles and interesting stories delivered to your inbox weekly. Subscribe to the Trending 5.
    By subscribing, you acknowledge and agree to's Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.

    KSL Weather Forecast