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Written in the fall of 2017.
It’s not that hard to think of ideas to improve the Rio Grande situation. What is happening is politicians using community prejudice and fear to their advantage. Operation Rio Grande does not care about making Rio Grande safer for the homeless, they care about making it more palatable for business owners. That’s why their “solution” involves brute force, violent power, and fast action. They want the homeless out of sight and out of mind. They aren’t working on anything towards improving services and actually helping people (just look at the way they talk about the phase 2 and phase 3: they never account for how they will provide for the needs of 600 people arrested. They have yet to find treatment and services for so many people, but had no problem arresting all of them in a matter of days).
Punishment is not a solution. Fear is not a solution. Control is not a solution.
I am seeing a lot of comments that “Operation Rio Grande is really sad… but what else can we do?” That’s a very big and important question. And there are lots of answers! So, let’s brainstorm together some ideas. Of course, no solution is perfect, and no study is 100% bias-free and perfect science, BUT I believe we can do better than just arresting hundreds of people on petty charges, racking up debt for these people through court fees, increasing stress and emotional turmoil, risking health with cold-turkey withdrawals, spend tens of millions of dollars… and a year from now have absolutely no changes to the situation.
Here are some of my ideas:
- Set up medical and mental health tents in Rio Grande. 4th street and the Road Home are so overloaded, it’s bananas.
- The state legislature accepts the Medicaid expansion, and use that money to give healthcare to way more people in Utah.
- Make applying for social services like medicaid, food stamps, housing, etc., a much more transparent and straightforward process. If you have never applied for these things, I encourage you to do it, just so you can see how complicated and backwards it is. The rules change almost monthly, so even people who work at these places can’t keep up (and nothing against them: it’s really impossible). It’s very frustrating and discouraging.
- Incentivize landlords to decrease their rent rates. Tax breaks for those not hiking their rents up. Assistance with maintenance and other costs for those with affordable rent.
- Micro-loans for emergency situations. Most people lose their homes because of a medical emergency, a lost job, a broken vehicle, or a family member leaving (because of break-ups, jail time, death, etc) so the rent can’t be paid in full. Most of us live close to the edge, short-term assistance would be great!
- Every person in Utah paying $1 once a month to go into an account to feed people. $3 million dollars monthly, $36 million a year just for people to use every month for food. People could just say at grocery stores and restaurants “I want to use the state fund” and all food-providers would have a card they could swipe. No questions asked.
- Banning the padlocking of dumpsters. If people eat your trash, they eat your trash. Get over it. There is too much food waste in this state.
- Planting edible gardens and fruit trees in the public flower beds/road medians, that people can take from whenever they want/need to. Already paying a lot of people to maintain this public land, but it could be edible!
- Offering more drug treatment covered by medicaid that is not 12-step based, since a lot of people don’t do recovery because they hate the 12 steps (and also the 12 steps aren’t evidence-based).
- More facilities where parents can keep their kids with them while they undergo treatment.
- More treatment at night and on weekends, so that people can work and attend treatment at the same time (it is upsetting how many services are only available during the workday).
- Paying social workers more money instead of investing in army equipment for police officers, so that the burn-out rate is lower, social workers remain in the field longer/become better at their jobs, and everyone is calmer and happier.
- Offering more low-income/free child care services in more locations so both parents can work and it actually makes sense financially.
- Spend more time in school focusing on reducing prejudice and stigma, so people are better equipped to help and support one another. Also teach de-escalation tactics, both for yourself and others, all throughout school, so there are fewer crisis situations.
- Stop charging people with trespassing for riding the train without a ticket, clogging up court systems, increasing peoples’ debt/fear of police/inability to use public transit/etc, etc. Just have them step off the train.
- Or, even better: offer free bus passes for anyone who qualifies for medicaid.
- EVEN MORE BETTER: demand UTA provides cheaper/more accessible public transit since they are getting millions of dollars from the government.
- Make higher education more accessible (an easier and more transparent financial aid system, more locations, short-term programs, more evening programs, etc), so that more people can get degrees and get better jobs.
- Tax the wealthy more heavily for inherited property/money, and use that money to build housing for others.
- No more tax loopholes for millionaires. Because it’s dumb.
- No more illiteracy. No more kids graduating from high school with 2nd grade reading levels. If a kid can’t read, they are spending the whole school day learning how to read until they can. Too important to ignore.
- More funding to libraries who offer so many services and also help teach kids how to read.
- Asking homeless people what they need, and buying it for them.
- Paying people who administer programs like HEAT and other short-term services to actually go out into affected communities and provide the services door-to-door. Too many services are so hard to get to, and require so much paperwork that people would be able to access easily if they were at home. Again, the systems are too daunting and discouraging.
- A huge push for voting from homeless individuals (polls located at Rio Grande/social services), and no longer banning felons from voting. Everyone who lives in Utah, even the ones without roofs or behind bars, should have a say in who is elected.
- Citizen control within the police system. A citizen board who gets to vote on the firing of police officers, the hiring of police officers, and the budget of the police department.
- Providing better tents, sleeping bags, coats, and shoes for people living on the streets because that is miserable and the short-term solution really matters.
- No more development in the Rio Grande area. Period. We don’t need more businesses, we need more services.
- Easier prescription medication access. Doctors refilling over the phone, pharmacists having the ability to choose the cheaper version of a prescribed medication, a state-wide prescription fund for those who can’t afford their meds with their insurance (which is A LOT of people).
- More services like the UNI crisis-line, that can go to a crisis situation, help de-escalate, and make appropriate medical referrals when needed (we have used UNI a lot at my work and they are great, but lately they are too swamped by calls to help!).
- Incentivize business owners to hire the homeless and ex-felons. Tax breaks, bonuses, etc. for taking chances on employees that might feel like a risk.
- Sick leave as a right to every Utah employee, so that hourly and part-time workers quit losing their jobs because of the flu.
- Free flu shots in school for every students, so that everyone is getting sick less.
Okay, so there are 30ish ideas, just off the top of my head, and I didn’t even get into prison abolition. I could probably do another 30 ideas right now if I wanted to.
Eliza McKinney is a co-founder of Decarcerate Utah. Follow her at @mckinney.eliza