‘You’re doing the right thing’: Addiction experts applaud Utah for homeless reform

A pair of nationally recognized leaders for addiction treatment praised Utah for Operation Rio Grande on Thursday — while also urging state officials not to give in to community pushback that inevitably comes with efforts to address homeless issues.

"You're on a good path," said Mary Hauser, who has worked in Massachusetts as a behavioral health and addiction medicine expert, at a pre-legislative panel on homeless and substance abuse issues hosted by House Speaker Greg Hughes at the Capitol.

Utah "made some significant progress" when it became one of the first states in the nation to implement the Housing First model, Hauser said, and now the state is "taking the lead with additional innovations" by city, county and state resources in Operation Rio Grande — while also working to expand treatment beds.

"You're doing the right thing," said Dr. David Smith, founder of San Francisco's Haight Ashbury Free Medical Clinic and past president of the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

"But don't expect applause in the beginning," Smith added, noting that when he first started in addiction medicine decades ago, doctors detoxing addicts could be arrested.

"Yeah, don't expect applause," Hughes said in mock exasperation.

Hughes, R-Draper, and other leaders, including Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams and Salt Lake City Mayor Biskupski, are no strangers to the controversy that comes with efforts to address homeless issues.

Since the August launch of Operation Rio Grande, some surrounding Salt Lake neighborhoods have complained about homelessness problems moving into nearby communities. In October, a nationally renowned homelessness expert lambasted the operation for having a heavy focus on arrests while not pouring as many resources into treatment or housing.

The city and county mayors also faced heated backlash when siting three new homeless resource centers meant to break up the downtown Road Home's population into more manageable sizes.

Hauser said Utah is headed in the right direction with the "scattered site" homeless shelter model. She said before Boston broke up its large shelter, people were "nameless" and helping individuals became a daunting task for even the most passionate homeless providers.

Hauser and Smith said it takes alignment from all government agencies and local providers to address tough issues at the root of homelessness like addiction, mental health and lack of affordable housing, and they praised Utah leaders for taking steps to align those efforts through Operation Rio Grande.

"You're taking the lead with these additional innovations," Hauser said, applauding the opening of an additional 112 Odyssey House treatment beds that was celebrated later Thursday.

But Hughes — who announced Wednesday he won't be seeking re-election to his House seat this year — asked for advice for elected officials who will inevitably face difficulties finding support in their communities, especially on issues like transitional and high-density housing.

"At every single one of these community meetings, all the goodwill that we've had comes to screeching halt when I say, 'How about here? Can we do it here?'" Hughes said.

Hauser recommended getting buy-in from real community members who can put a human face on the issue.

"Seek out that one strong advocate in the community," she said. "The mom and dad that who just lost their child to an OD; the parent who couldn't understand why their child was struggling and later found out they lived in a tent in the park somewhere."