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Down on their luck in Sugar House

Published April 15, 2014 1:33 pm

Not everyone in Utah capital city's east-side enclave welcomes the visitors.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Their numbers are small. They can be practically invisible or starkly too apparent. How much of a problem they are depends on your point of view.

They are the homeless of Sugar House. They face the same challenges as the homeless anywhere — how to get nutrition, where to find shelter from the elements and how to get through another hopeless day.

Unlike the homeless population surrounding Pioneer Park in downtown Salt Lake City, the homeless in Sugar House stand out against the upscale surroundings. They can be spotted on street corners panhandling with signs — what they call "flagging." They can be seen in the area between Fairmont Park and the Sugar House liquor store — a favorite stop. And retailers say they can be found sitting around coffeehouses, restaurants and other shops for hours at a time.

Although their numbers swell in warmer weather, Salt Lake City police say they are not a major problem.

But Sugar House resident Cabot Nelson, who lives near Fairmont Park, recalled a December 2010 murder of a homeless woman by a homeless man. Things have improved a bit, he said, but drinkers hanging out in the park remain a problem.

In 2010, he called the police about 20 times with complaints of drunken miscreants. Last year, he called seven times. He'd like to see stronger laws and enforcement regarding camping and panhandling.

Area merchants also see the homeless as troublesome, said Annalisa Holcombe, chairwoman of the Sugar House Chamber of Commerce. Some shopkeepers believe the homeless are bad for business.

"The shop owners don't know what their rights are when these people come in and stay for long periods of time," Holcombe said. "They want to be respectful, but they want to have their own rights, too."

One of the homeless men living in Sugar House is David Neal, 38. He grew up in Florida, has a background in "culinary arts" but found himself on the street after a divorce, a stretch of bad luck and a lot of drinking. He swore off alcohol about three months ago.

His belongings, including his identification, were stolen and now he's stuck.

"It's impossible to get an ID without a birth certificate," he said.

Without an ID, you can't get a job, he said. And without a job, you can't get off the street.

"A lot of us, that's what we want — a job. But because we're dirty and live outdoors, it's impossible."

Neal and his friend, Joe Ortega, 53, flag at the eastbound offramp of Interstate 80 at 1300 East.

On a recent day, he spent six hours at the corner and came away with $5. The day before that, a woman gave him $40.

"There was some guy who got on TV and said we were making $300 to $400 a day and spending it all on drugs," Neal said with a scoff. "I challenge anybody to come out here and make $100."

Neal camps out in Sugar House because the area surrounding Pioneer Park is too dangerous.

"About February of last year I was near the Rio Grande [Hotel] when someone came up behind me and hit me with a brick."

He was hospitalized for several days.

In addition, Neal and Ortega don't want to be surrounded by the drug traffic and drug users in the Pioneer Park area — despite the fact that practically all the homeless-service providers are downtown.

Ortega is a lifelong alcoholic. But, like Neal, he quit drinking about three months ago. Originally from Salt Lake City, he's been living on the street for some 20 years.

He and Neal were sleeping under the 1300 East bridge on I-80 until recently, when the Utah Highway Patrol told them to move out, Ortega said. Now they're looking for another place to camp.

Ortega has heard about a new Utah law that forbids panhandling on state and federal highways. It takes effect May 13.

"You are going to have a lot of angry panhandlers," Ortega said. "The freeway is where you make all your money."

He can make it on about $20 to $25 a day. Less than that and he has to go "Dumpster diving," he said. Mostly, he hits the trash bins at fast-food places after closing time to get the day's leftovers.

Ortega suffers from hepatitis C, liver ailments, high blood pressure and dental problems. And since he quit drinking, he's experienced a lot of anxiety. Ortega does get some treatment from the Fourth Street Clinic outreach service.

On Wednesday, he and Neal and several other homeless people in the area gathered around the clinic's van, driven by Joel Hunt. Hunt scours the Salt Lake City area checking up on the health needs of the homeless. He gives checkups, ear exams, eye exams, offers over-the-counter medications and makes referrals.

"Some people are disgusted with the homeless in Sugar House," Hunt said. "Some don't know they're here. In the summer, the area will swell with travelers."

It's unusual for two homeless men to stop drinking, Hunt observed. Alcoholics and drug addicts find it difficult to stop using on the street because of the hard conditions they face.

"They live minute by minute, hour by hour," he said. "They have to find something to eat, figure out where they are going to sleep and if there's anybody out there who will hurt them. It's complicated, even for someone without mental problems or substance abuse."

Homelessness looks to be a challenge all the way around.

"We'd like to find a solution," said Holcombe of the Chamber of Commerce. "Right now, we don't know what it is."

csmart@sltrib.com