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Scott G Winterton, KSL, File

Operation Rio Grande's 'dignity of work' phase underway

By Katie McKellar, KSL | Posted - Nov. 9, 2017 at 6:08 p.m.

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SALT LAKE CITY — Calling all Utah businesses: state officials are looking for companies willing to hire the homeless.

Lt. Governor Spencer Cox and House Speaker Greg Hughes, among other state officials, announced Thursday the launch of phase 3 of Operation Rio Grande, coined "dignity of work."

"I will tell you of all the phases I'm most excited about, it's phase 3," Cox said. "We all recognize that critical to overcoming homelessness, critical to overcoming addiction, critical to just living the American dream is the dignity of work."

"In order to truly help people get off the streets, to truly help people find joy and happiness in their lives to bring dignity to who they are and what they do, we have to be able to give them opportunities," Cox added.

When the lieutenant governor was first tasked with putting together a team to coordinate phase 3 of the effort to bring Salt Lake City's most troubled neighborhood under control before the 2019 closure of the downtown homeless shelter, Cox said one person came to mind and he made a "phone call on a whim."

Steve Starks, president of the Utah Jazz, answered, Cox said, and enthusiastically agreed to lead the charge.

Starks formed a committee of state officials and other community members such as the Pioneer Park Coalition to help structure the program, which he said could not be a "cookie cutter solution."

Starting this week, Starks said four employment counselors from the Utah Department of Workforce Services will begin meeting with individuals in the Rio Grande area one-on-one to learn about their backgrounds and start evaluating for employment opportunities.

From those assessments, Starks said people will fall into one of three categories: those who may be addicted to drugs or have other issues that may prevent them from being hired, those who may not be ready right away because they need training, or those who are "work ready" who could start a job the next day.

We all recognize that critical to overcoming homelessness, critical to overcoming addiction, critical to just living the American dream is the dignity of work.

–Lt. Governor Spencer Cox

As individuals "graduate" to being work ready by completing drug treatment and attend "workshops" slated to begin next month to help train individuals on job skills, Starks said they'll become eligible to find work.

"We'll track who comes and participates to these things, and if you've come to workshops and expressed interest and taken initiative, then we can start to graduate these people to more responsibilities," Starks said.

He said one company, Okland Construction, has already agreed to hire 10 people from the Rio Grande area to work on a local project as soon as next week.

But now, Starks said his team is asking other Utah companies to get involved.

"This is a big lift," Starks said. "This is going to take the work of Utahns coming together."

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