OGDEN — No firm data exists to determine whether the Ogden area has seen a significant surge in its homeless population since Operation Rio Grande commenced in Salt Lake City in mid-August.
But according to Kristen Mitchell, executive director of Youth Futures Utah, the homeless teens her nonprofit serves has almost doubled in size in the past four weeks.
“We’ve gone from eight to 10 kids to 15 to 16 per night. We’ve had to hire extra staff,” Mitchell said. “I’m not sure if its directly linked to that, but it could be. Sometimes we don’t know exactly where our kids are coming from, but we have seen a huge increase.”
The first phase of Operation Rio Grande began Aug. 14, with law enforcement agencies cracking down on transients camping on the streets around the Road Home Shelter in Salt Lake City. Drug sales and use ran rampant in the area, and the initial aim was to restore order by arresting dealers and offering treatment options to addicts.
Phase one involved freeing up beds in the Salt Lake County Jail by sending low-level offenders to other county facilities. Phase two aims to increase in treatment beds for individuals in need of mental health or drug detox and treatment. Phase three will combine public and private support to get individuals back to work.
Youth Futures runs an overnight residence in Ogden, and Mitchell said they’re in the process of planning a similar facility in St. George.
On Wednesday, Ogden Mayor Mike Caldwell joined Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams and St. George Mayor Jon Pike to speak to the Utah League of Cities and Towns convention in Salt Lake City. Caldwell said that so far, Ogden has not seen an uptick in the same homeless issues that plagued the Rio Grande area in Salt Lake City.
“We’ve been keeping a close eye on that ... as far as we know, none of that has migrated north,” Caldwell said, noting he reached out to Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, and Commissioner Keith Squires of the Utah Department of Public Safety, who came up and toured the Lantern House at 269 W. 33rd St. in Ogden where people can tap an array of services to get back on their feet.
Caldwell praised the Lantern House’s focus on case management and accountability, adding that state officials are now recognizing that 50 percent of people taking advantage of Lantern House resources come from outside the Ogden area.
“So its a statewide issue that everyone has to get involved in,” Caldwell said. Attempts to reach Jennifer Canter, executive director for Lantern House, were not successful Thursday.
Andi Beadles, executive director of the Weber Housing Authority, said her agency has seen an increase in people seeking housing assistance.
“We don’t collect data on if they came from Salt Lake City for our program. But as we chat with people looking for housing, some say they did,” Beadles said Thursday. “And when we go out on the streets on outreach, we’re starting to see people we don’t know, that we’ve never seen before.”
The Weber Housing Authority no longer has an outreach coordinator on staff. But that anecdotal increase is now spurring the need to compile data and analyze what the numbers mean, Beadles said, so that resources can be available to address it.
“I’m in the early stages of putting something together,” she said.
Weber County Commission Chairman James Ebert said he thought the Ogden area had seen a “bump” in its homeless population in recent weeks.
“We’ll be reaching out to Ogden to see what that overall impact is, and then we’ll be going to the state to help us address that impact — that shift or displacement of the homeless in Salt Lake County,” Ebert said. “We’re all tracking that as a county and state with all our large law enforcement providers. We’re very aware of the possible impact and are looking at how to offset it and also provide services.”
According to Lt. Nate Hutchinson, spokesman for the Weber County Sheriff’s Office, the jail has not seen a notable increase in homeless arrests for criminal trespass, public intoxication, public urination and other low-level crimes associated with homelessness.
Capt. Danielle Croyle, spokeswoman for the Ogden Police Department, said the law enforcement phase of the Rio Grande initiative led directly to search warrants and further criminal investigations in Ogden. According to the Utah Department of Public Safety, officers arrested an Ogden couple Tuesday night after finding two firearms, more than $53,000, 12 grams of meth, half a pound of heroin, 1 gram of cocaine and drug paraphernalia.
“We have resources here to help, and we want to be sure that we help the homeless. But the transient and vagrant concerns that come with that criminal element, we want to make sure they don’t infiltrate our community,” Croyle said. “We are proactive in eradicating drug sales ... and we want to continue to ensure that we don’t have them setting up shop in Ogden and just replace what’s not happening at Rio Grande.”