As old shelter is torn down, turning sorrowful memories to dust, it should be a happy occasion … But it isn’t.
The large red brick building was fenced on one side by a 10-foot high black steel fence that perversely surrounded a long-disused children’s playground. The steel fence ended at a concrete apron that was maybe 20 feet wide at its entrance, 50 feet at its widest point. A wide road fronted the building, and two state police cars were parked in the median in front of the entry, engines running, their headlights pointed at the door. The concrete apron ended at a long concrete ramp that sloped up to the steel entry door. Another state police car was parked on the concrete off to the side of the entry way. I knew that
Ever since “Operation Rio Grande,” kicked off in early 2017, the shelter had been surrounded by state police. Beyond the steel door was a flight of stairs that led to the men’s lobby. This was the Road Home Shelter in Salt Lake City. I pulled the door open and walked up the dirty stairs feeling dejected and depressed. It was January 2019 and I was homeless, and all I had now was the shelter.
Or so I thought.
The lobby was empty, which surprised me, because I knew that hundreds of people stayed here. Where were they? A woman with a bored expression sat in a small open office behind an intake desk. A sign on the desk said simply; “Out of Beds.” I felt a little panicky as I approached the woman. “What do you mean you’re out of beds? It’s freezing outside! Where do I go now?” I asked.
The woman at the desk looked at me like I was slow. “You go to the overflow!”
After I learned where the overflow was, I carried my two small backpacks back down the stairs and walked around the block until I arrived at the St. Vincent De Paul center, a soup kitchen and dining room across the street to the east. There I was given a small camping mat, a blue and white cotton blanket about as thick as typing paper and told to pick a spot on the concrete floor. The blanket had a stamp that said, “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.”
I guess the Mormons wanted everybody to know that they donated all these shitty little blankets.
I tried to find a place close to the little electric heater by the table where the attendant sat and lay down using one of my small backpacks as a pillow. It didn’t help much; after about an hour I was shivering. I texted my sister, who lives in a large house about a half hour away. I asked if I could please just have a spot on her floor. She said no. It was a long, cold night.
At 6 a.m., those of us in the overflow were kicked out into the cold. I walked back around the block to see if my luck had improved any. This time I was allowed in and told to get in line for bed assignments for the next night. My backpacks were searched, and I was directed through a metal detector where I was told to turn my pockets out and show my waistband and socks to a security guard. I was then waved into the general population area, where the lineup for the coming night’s bed assignment was forming.
I would learn that the check-in process was one of the most stressful parts of the day.
The men’s lobby was usually a scene of congested frustration. Men lined up and crammed together waiting for the staff to first check to see if they had a bed slip then wait for another staff member to search through their belongings, then the metal detector and the pocket and sock thing. The process could take so long that some people including myself, went hungry instead of going out to get something to eat in order to avoid the check-in queue. Smokers of cigarettes (and other things) filled the air with smoke instead of bothering with the ordeal, as it was so much easier to light up inside. Fights would break out as men became physically and emotionally exhausted just standing there.
Sometimes, particularly after the lobby had closed for cleaning, the line would be so long that men would be stranded outside in the cold for as long as two hours. Hundreds of us stood there in a miserable queue, nothing to do but tuck our faces away from the icy wind and stamp our freezing feet. One time I was out there during a heavy snowstorm for so long that my head and shoulders were completely covered in snow and I could no longer feel my feet.
The design of the shelter was a real head scratcher.
Take the bathroom situation. There was only one bathroom for 600 men. The stainless-steel toilets had long since turned black. What was left of the stalls had eaten away by acid at the bottom until the bottoms resembled dirty brown lace. The single shower room had four poles with eight shower spouts on them. Two poles worked. This was true for the entire time I was there. There were exactly 10 sinks and three soap dispensers, zero hand dryers. I used to joke that staying clean in the shelter was like trying to stay dry in a swimming pool; it wasn’t too far from the truth. There was a coin-op laundry room that nobody could afford, not that it would have mattered. Only two or three of the machines ever worked.
The first thing I learned was that toilet paper was precious … very precious. It was hoarded by everyone. The second thing I learned was that it was absolutely critical to keep an empty one-liter Gatorade bottle or something comparable. The single bathroom was closed and locked for three hours a day for cleaning. Three hours if everything went well. Not only that, but these closures happened right after everyone got up and just before lights-out. More than once I saw someone defecate on a blanket, wrap up the blanket and toss it in a trash can. Men would sometimes just wet themselves or worse. And some of the mentally ill or mentally deficient men would just walk around soiled. Empty plastic bottles were easily the number one target of theft in the shelter, and I guarded mine carefully.
Almost everybody was sick.
The most common ailment was simply called “shelter hack,” a pervasive cough that nothing seemed to help. Everybody had it to some degree, even the staff. There weren’t any rooms that didn’t share the same recirculated air. I strongly suspect the filters weren’t being tended to since there were new shelters on the way. After nine months, I contracted severe COPD despite being a non-smoker.
Hunger was ever-present, as there were only two small shelves for microwaves and, of course, no refrigeration. I never saw more than two working microwaves, and they overheated constantly. The St. Vincent’s kitchen next door closed in April for remodeling, and all that was provided were two sack lunches with one sandwich, one piece of fruit and one food-bar or something similar all day. It was common to see guys wandering through the dorms begging for food.
The worst thing about the shelter was the sorrow. It was a palpable presence, and could be suffocating at times, like when people died. One morning, a man bled out right in front of me in a hallway. It was one of the most horrible experiences in my life.
He started coughing up blood, and then blood poured out of his mouth and nose, pooling on the floor in front of me. When the medics arrived, they attempted to revive him, but he was unresponsive. Then they just threw him in a chair and carted him out like a sack of garbage, leaving his coat behind. It was as if they knew that he would no longer need it.
One morning there was a syringe on the floor beside a man who had clearly not been breathing for some time.
Like the episode with the bleeding man, the medics showed up and just carted him away like so much refuse. Mornings like these were hard, as were the mornings when I discovered people I knew had been found dead elsewhere. 2019 was a very, very hard year.
To their great credit, most of the staff members were shining examples of altruism. They breathed the same poison air and weathered the same emotional storms that we did. They were trying to accomplish so much with so little. I read the budgets that were proposed online, as they are public information, and witnessed time and again how politicians who were totally ignorant of the situation slashed the numbers. One fine example is the time that the Homeless Coordinating Committee, led by Lt. Governor Spencer Cox, slashed the budget of the homeless hospice, which provides end-of-life care, by $500,000.
In a state with a budgetary surplus of $682 million, so much more could be done.
More than 70% of the elected officials in the state are members of the LDS church. The church, headquartered just a few blocks from the Capitol, has always called the shots in Utah – that has never been a secret. What was a secret until recently was the fact the church amassed $100 billion in tax-free wealth. The church actually tried to hide the fact they had $100 billion in their coffers for fear that members would slack off on their tithes.
With all that money, the dream of truly affordable housing in Utah could be realized. For only a tiny fraction of that vast fortune, the mentally ill could be cared for, the months-long waiting lists for treatment beds could be eliminated, and people could get well.
So, now the big machines are tearing down the old shelter, turning all of those sorrowful memories to dust. It should be a happy occasion. But it isn’t.
The new shelters, called “Resource Centers,” are so much nicer in comparison with the old. The bathroom problem was addressed, there’s a computer lab and a library. Warm meals are brought from the newly remodeled St. Vincent De Paul kitchen and the air is clean.
It’s just that the old building sheltered 1,100 people; all of the new ones together shelter only 700. Hundreds of people were literally left out in the cold. There’s no getting around that. Had it not been for an unusually warm winter, many would have died from exposure. With nowhere to go, people were forced to camp anywhere they could, which resulted in ugly occurrences of police brutality. Sweeps were performed with impunity until the ACLU stepped in to protect the civil rights of homeless people. Protests were mounted and police responded with riot gear and arrests.
Finally, a new winter shelter was opened. It has only one water fountain for its 145 clients and no showers. It’s warm and it’s not a tent, but that’s about it. Everybody must leave on April 15 and they will still have nowhere to go.
Yes, Utah’s situation is so much better than other places. But that isn’t an excuse. It could have been done right, and it should have been.
The official line is there wasn’t a need for more than 700 beds because the resource centers would be much more successful at getting people into housing. Obviously, they failed. The design looked good. The operators chosen for the resource centers were very careful about doing the research and coming up with the numbers needed to meet those expectations. But those numbers were not met. The legislature slapped it down, providing only a small fraction of the requirement.
I work with homeless people and asked some of them how they felt seeing the old building torn down.
One said, “I don’t get why they just didn’t take all that money and fix up the old building.”
A lot of people have the same sentiment, but from where the building stood, one can see three high-end apartment buildings where the rent for a studio is upwards of $1,400. There is the glitzy $375 million Gateway Mall across the street, and the site of a planned $8 million luxury boutique hotel next door.
The state is planning to sell the property as soon as the demolition is complete. A leader for the Catholic Community Services said, “The only accepted reuse of this property would be affordable housing and permanent supportive housing.” I personally think that is as likely as is a scuba-diving school for horses. But perhaps I’m too cynical. Let’s just say that I would be very surprised.
I walked over and watched the giant backhoes tearing, ripping and pounding the old shelter to pieces. Few, if any, will miss the old building that was here. I know that I won’t.
I just can’t help thinking of all those hundreds of millions of dollars and what just a tiny fraction of all that could have accomplished. Utah could have been such a shining example of success.
Sadly, I walk away.