Homeless make their voices heard at forum on poverty
Patty Eagle wishes there were a better way. She'd rather have a job than panhandle in downtown Salt Lake City.
"It's embarrassing to go out there," said Eagle, 55. "You stand for hours and maybe walk away with $5. If you're lucky you might be able to buy a hot meal."
Eagle was one of several homeless Utahns who spoke Saturday at the annual People's Summit on Poverty, designed to bring together those living in poverty and those looking to take action.
"The purpose of this gathering is to bring people who've actually experienced poverty together with people concerned to talk about what can be done about issues locally and at the state level," said Glenn Bailey, executive director of the Crossroads Urban Center, which is also part of the Utah Poverty Partnership, which sponsored the event at St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral in Salt Lake City.
Between breakfast and lunch, more than 50 people discussed such issues as immigration, health care and payday lending. Besides being hot topics nationwide, they're also issues inextricably linked to poverty, speakers said.
But mostly, the crowd wanted to discuss homelessness. A number of homeless attendees spoke about food stamps, about Mayor Ralph Becker's efforts to crack down on aggressive panhandling, and how they'd like to see a new job program for the homeless in Salt Lake City.
"I wanted to make the community aware of homeless people out there trying to survive," said Eagle's husband, Jackie Sanchez, who is also homeless but volunteers with his wife at the Crossroads' Food Pantry. He said he's been waiting for housing for 18 months and often lies awake at night watching over his wife to make sure she's safe while sleeping.
Sanchez and his wife are plaintiffs in a lawsuit in federal court against the governor, Utah attorney general, Becker, his police chief and Salt Lake City chief prosecutor Sim Gill, seeking the right to panhandle on roadways and streets.
"I'm tired of living on the streets," Sanchez said. "I'm 53 years old, and I don't think I can last another winter out there."
Rachel Fischbein, director of emergency services at Crossroads, said without reliable transportation and steady access to showers or clean clothes, it can often be difficult for homeless people to get jobs.
As part of the event, the Utah Poverty Partnership also invited Salt Lake County District Attorney Lohra Miller and Gill, her rival candidate, to talk about various issues, including whether they'd be willing to lead efforts to explore alternatives to "criminalizing homelessness."
Both candidates said they would.
"We absolutely need to make sure our poor, vulnerable and mentally ill are taken care of," said Miller, a Republican.
Gill, a Democrat, said all too often society's social justice failures are "picked up by default by our criminal justice institutions."
"The mind-set that somehow we can arrest and prosecute our way out of our social ills is a misguided notion," Gill said.
Linda Hilton, director of the Coalition of Religious Communities, said she hoped the summit helped to open more people's eyes.
"The biggest problem we have is public perception that everyone who is poor or homeless deals drugs or is criminal," Hilton said. "I hope we have provided some clarification of the issues. I hope we have erased some stereotypes."