Advocates urge Utah's homeless to come inside
With frigid temperatures hovering in the single digits, advocates for Salt Lake City's homeless community have one message for the people they serve: come inside, no one will be turned away.
"Our numbers were high for this cold stretch and they climbed slightly. Our ultimate concern is making sure we get everyone in," said Matt Minkevitch, executive director for the Road Home homeless shelter at 210 S. Rio Grande St.
On Sunday night, 1,107 individuals sought refuge from the elements in Road Home facilities. An increase in the number of homeless families last year led to an early opening of the nonprofit agency's winter overflow shelter in Midvale in October.
"We've been running about 68 to 70 families in Midvale," said Michelle Flynn, associate executive programs director for the Road Home. "And we've been running pretty full (at the main shelter) with single men and single women."
However, when the mercury plummets, the Road Home and other such agencies get creative. Working in tandem with the Volunteers of America-Utah and their homeless and medical outreach vans, they reach out to those who prefer to camp outside, offering supplies and urging them to seek shelter, regardless of the hour.
If someone shows up at 2 a.m. "we'll tuck them in with blankets and dry socks for the rest of the night," Flynn said.
Cots line the lobbies for latecomers, Flynn added, and check-out times during the day have also been relaxed.
"They can stay until 10 a.m. and then we're opening again at 3 p.m.," Flynn said.
Michelle Templin, VOA-Utah's community engagement director, said the organization has seen an uptick in calls from the public about people perceived to be in crisis due to the cold.
"One individual had pretty bad frostbite and we were able to get him the help he needed," Templin said.
In addition to those helpful alerts, Templin said that their greatest need right now is money for gas and operations. "And then we always need new socks," she added.
All 56 beds of the Rescue Mission of Salt Lake's emergency dorm at 463 S. 400 West were full Sunday night, with 63 men sleeping on bedrolls on the facility's carpeted overflow floor, said Executive Director Chris Croswhite.
"The record number we've had sleeping on the overflow floor was 81. That was two winters ago," Croswhite said.
That space doubles as the mission's chapel and multipurpose day room, Croswhite added, providing bathroom facilities and an escape from the biting cold.
"Right now there are 25 to 30 men and women sitting in the day room," Croswhite said Monday. "Some are reading, others are talking. There's no need for people on cold days like today to even go outside unless they choose to."
Salt Lake's Rescue Mission serves three meals each day and also distributes sack lunches to those in need. People can also find lunch Monday through Friday at the St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall, 437 W. 200 South, and dinner every night of the week. Saturday brunch is also served there from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m.
St. Vincent De Paul's Weigand Homeless Resource Center at 235 S. Rio Grande also offers warmth and daytime resources for the homeless community.
Pamela Atkinson, a tireless advocate for the homeless population, is urging outdoor campers to cover up and "drink more sensibly" if they are imbibing alcoholic beverages.
"If you get inebriated, fall into a deep sleep and areas of your body are exposed, you will of course get frostbite," Atkinson said.
Atkinson often makes the rounds with the VOA-Utah vans to make sure people have what they need and to also encourage them to come inside.
"If they have a tent, protective clothing and bedding, and are used to staying outside, they say they choose to live this way," Atkinson said. "They want to keep their independence."
However, those individuals with disabilities or mental illnesses need an extra nudge , Atkinson said.
"We don't want anyone to freeze to death or to get frostbite," Atkinson said, "and in this weather that's easy to do."
How to help:
Cash gifts and donations of warm bedding, sleeping bags, thick socks, hats, waterproof gloves and boots are welcomed at the Road Home at 210 S. Rio Grande St. in Salt Lake City and the Rescue Mission of Salt Lake, 463 S. 400 West. To donate to Volunteers of America-Utah, go to http://www.voaut.org or send checks to 435 Bearcat Drive, Salt Lake City, UT 84115. To contact the outreach van about individuals in need, call 801-631-7584.