SALT LAKE CITY — More than a year after the launch of Operation Rio Grande to clean up Salt Lake City's most infamous neighborhood, it appears the city still faces some public perception challenges when it comes to homelessness and panhandling.
A new Utah Policy poll released Tuesday found 45 percent of 203 city residents who participated in the poll say the homeless and panhandling situation in Salt Lake City is "about the same" as when the state, city and county began the effort to root out crime in the Rio Grande neighborhood.
Twenty-six percent said the homeless situation was better, while 24 percent said the homeless problem has gotten worse over the past year. Five percent said they didn't know.
The Dan Jones & Associates survey was conducted Aug. 22 to Sept. 12, with a margin of error of plus or minus 6.8 percent.
Operation Rio Grande — the multiagency effort to address crime around the downtown homeless shelter and help the state's homeless — has been estimated to cost more than $67 million since its launch in August 2017.
At the one-year anniversary of the operation's launch, state leaders lauded efforts, yet acknowledged there's been "no mission accomplished" and more work needs to be done to connect people to services.
Salt Lake City police expected — and have been working to address — "dispersion" of criminal activity and homelessness issues into other neighborhoods as a result of the increased police presence in the Rio Grande neighborhood, said Salt Lake police detective Greg Wilking.
"This isn't a short-term fix," Wilking said. "This isn't something that we're going to snap our fingers and overnight the situation is going to be resolved."
"We think we've made some progress," the detective added. "We're moving in a good direction — at least we're dealing with it instead of ignoring it."
Wilking said he hopes Salt Lake City residents will be patient with the ongoing efforts — but also engage with police if they see something in their neighborhoods.
"There are people that will say it's worse, but are they doing anything about it? Are they calling when they see that activity or are they complacent?" Wilking said.
Several areas experiencing more crime or turning into new gathering places for homeless have recently become a new focus for Salt Lake City police, including the Gateway Inn on North Temple and green spaces near the Salt Lake Public Safety building. Wilking also said the ongoing construction at Pioneer Park to build a new multipurpose field has also likely caused some ripple effect throughout the city.
Wilking noted the poll's small sample size and large margin of error is something to consider with the poll's results. Even still, Wilking considered the 26 percent of respondents reporting a "better" outcome a positive sign.
"That's not a bad percentage," he said. "That's optimistic, and we like that."
Wilking said he expects Salt Lake City residents will continue to see change as Operation Rio Grande's programs expand, so he urged residents to be patient and diligent over the coming year.
There are people that will say it's worse, but are they doing anything about it? Are they calling when they see that activity or are they complacent?
–Salt Lake police detective Greg Wilking
"As we grow those other programs and get more (treatment) beds online and have more resources available, we hope to see to see that number of people saying its getting better grow," Wilking said.