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(Franciso Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Joe Ortega, 53, gets his blood pressure checked by Joel Hunt, Medical Outreach Director for the Fourth Street Clinic during a recent visit to the Sugar House area to check on the homeless. Ortega is one of a growing number of homeless who have gravitated away from downtown Salt Lake City because of safety concerns. But most services for the homeless are located in the city.
Down on their luck in Sugar House

Not everyone in Utah capital city’s

east-side enclave welcomes the visitors.

First Published Apr 14 2014 01:01 am • Last Updated Apr 15 2014 08:27 am

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.

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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.

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"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.

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