A little more than a week into the operation to clean up crime and vagrancy in the Rio Grande District, it may be too early for a clear-sighted progress report, but there is a new sense of order on the streets where a large contingent of police and social workers remain on patrol. It's a good beginning to a process that will be assessed not on the basis of what the area looks like now, but on what becomes of those arrested, those homeless seeking help and the state of the area in the future months and years.
The coalition of forces that mobilized for Operation Rio Grande have spoken to the need to remain vigilant in efforts to disrupt the confluence of criminal activity amid a concentration of homeless services that has led to systemic disorder. Over the years, there have been numerous drives to clamp down on problems in the district, including police sweeps, street cleaning campaigns, efforts to crack down on panhandling and moves to uproot campers from Pioneer Park. Those interventions were inadequate.
There are concerns the operation has not emphasized the availability of treatment programs for those whose mental illness or substance addictions have caused them to congregate in the Rio Grande area. Leaders on state, county and city levels are working to make sure those services become sufficient to serve the population and are there in perpetuity. Critical to that pledge is securing necessary money, and the state is pushing its application for federal Medicaid waivers, which could bring as much as $100 million to the table.
There are also concerns that the focus on the Rio Grande has led drug dealers and drug abusers to scatter into other neighborhoods. More monitoring must be done to control any spread of the problem.
The bottom line is that before the operation began, the Rio Grande was in utter turmoil. There was a sense of chaos and menace along the streets, day and night. There were daily cases of assault, including three homicide cases in recent weeks. In the short time that has elapsed since the effort was initiated, criminal activity has resulted in arrests.
Those who have worked to shepherd a solution have wisely understood that the crime problems must be separated from the issues of homelessness, despite several points of intersection. Drug dealers and violent drug users with long criminal records — homeless or not — needed to be removed from the streets, and adequate jail space was made available. In the first days, hundreds of arrests were made. Many were subsequently released as low-level drug users or misdemeanants who comprise that part of the homeless population that might be served by enhanced treatment programs. That, of course, depends on their willingness to enter treatment, as opposed to hovering in areas where they can feed their addictions.
Long-term plans to segregate shelter services should help in the process of placing people willing to undergo treatment and counseling into the proper programs. In the meantime, those leading the operation and working in the trenches deserve credit for bringing an emerging atmosphere of civility to an area that only weeks ago was literally in the grasp of lawlessness.