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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."
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