‘Operation Rio Grande’ hits snag with shortage of social workers

SALT LAKE CITY — A shortage of specialized social workers could slow Operation Rio Grande significantly in the coming months.

Last week, state and county officials gathered at First Step in Salt Lake City to announce the addition of 63 treatment beds for the homeless arrested in Operation Rio Grande.  The operation’s purpose is to separate the criminals from the homeless near the Road Home in downtown Salt Lake City in order to get the homeless the help they need.

Those 63 beds will be added to another 37 beds currently online and will be added to another 200 beds within the next 6 months, according to Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams. But the beds alone aren't enough. The operation also needs social workers to help the people using them.

“There’s an incredible demand all the way across the state for substance abuse treatments,” said Shawn McMillen, Director for First Step, an organization that helps give mental and drug rehab.

For every 80 treatment beds, McMillen said, about 25 to 30 specialized therapists are also needed.

“I would estimate 10 to 12 individuals with a Master’s Degree,” McMillen said. “Another two to four individuals with an associate’s degree or bachelor’s degree whom would serve in case management. Then, another twenty individuals providing 24-hour supervision.”

But the challenge, according to McMillen, is that's it’s already difficult finding people to fill current vacancies in the drug and mental rehab field.

"In reality, if you're looking for that kind of training, you're looking for the most well-rounded kind of therapist that is out there," McMillen said.

McMillen said the shortage is partly due to the increased need for opioid specialists, partly because of lower pay, and partly because the social work field is an aging field with more and more therapists shifting into retirement.

Dr. Jason Castillo, who serves as the Program Director of the Bachelor’s of Social Work at the University of Utah, said there’s currently a small pool of students who could fill those positions.

“Overall, we’re looking at maybe 50 to 60 students throughout the entire college,” Castillo said.

But, Castillo contends, many of those specialized positions, especially the Master’s positions, would be difficult for students to jump in right out of school.

"When we talk about homelessness, domestic violence, and criminalization, it's a pretty dark arena,” Dr. Castillo said. “I think for some of our students or grads don't understand the population or what the population is experiencing. It's quite a bit to handle."

Currently, the College of Social Work has applied for a $1.2 million federal grant to help pull in scholarship money in the hopes of bringing additional students to the school in the future.