Conditions have worsened in the Rio Grande area of Salt Lake City in the past few months. Officials have assured us change is coming soon. Utah Speaker of the House Greg Hughes set up a “war room” within view of the downtown mess. Salt Lake City Chief Mike Brown has tripled police patrols in the area in an effort to curb illegal drug trafficking.
Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, a lawyer by training, wanted to do his due diligence. Personally. With nothing but a bag of clothes, his iPhone and a tarp, last March McAdams walked from his county office to the downtown homeless district to experience what it was like to be homeless in Salt Lake City.
McAdams’ plan was to spend three days and two nights incognito, becoming one of the homeless and shelter population. Obviously he couldn’t experience the mental toll that accompanies such a reality but, physically, he was all in.
McAdams chose to sleep outside on the sidewalk the first night, among the most desperate and most extreme. It was March, rainy and cold, and darkness set in early. He got four hours of sleep. He was offered drugs, often, witnessed fights and generally “did not feel safe.”
McAdams slept in the shelter on his second night, with his tennis shoes tightly fastened. He was surprised that the drug screening process getting into the shelter consisted of a cursory search of his bag. While he was able to get a cot that night in the shelter, he was too late for a blanket. Imagine that: Utah’s primary homeless shelter doesn’t have enough blankets for each of its mattresses.
McAdams was reticent to give interviews. He found the whole experience “shocking.” But he didn’t want his efforts to be seen as an expose or a publicity stunt.
Any time a politician does anything — especially a politician who likely has ambition for higher office — it can’t be separated from the optics of campaigning. This is no exception. But if all McAdams was trying to do was make himself look good, he had every opportunity to call a lot more attention to his adventure.
The executive director of The Road Home doesn’t encourage people to do what McAdams did, as he says beds are in short supply. But sometimes a little shock of reality is just what a politician needs. One thing McAdams learned was the fact that the drive to find food and shelter are so consuming that there is little time left for anything else, including work training or employment searches. Those are tangible problems the city and county can help improve.
How many large cities in America have mayors willing to leave their families and their warm houses and put their lives in danger in an effort to better understand the plight of homeless residents? Not many. Hopefully McAdams’ strength of character can effect real change.