Fifty years ago, a Catholic anarchist tried to help solve homelessness in Salt Lake City. Here’s what happened.

(photo courtesy Jerry Currier) Ammon Hennacy speaks to a visitor at the Joe Hill House of Hospitality in downtown Salt Lake City in 1961. The location opened its doors as a homeless shelter in Nov. 1961, serving up to 60 people a day free of charge.

The neighbors couldn’t leave their houses without getting hit up by panhandlers and homeless men, who had been using both the front and back yards at 1131 S. West Temple as a bathroom.

Ammon Hennacy was inviting as many as 40 transients a night to sleep there, offering his house as the only homeless shelter in Salt Lake City that didn’t charge a fee or limit how long anyone could stay. It wasn’t uncommon for cops to drop drunk men off at Hennacy’s place if there wasn’t room at the jail.

It was 1965, and his neighbors were frightened and angry. Their experience is what today’s Simpson Avenue residents feared earlier this year, as they successfully fought a 150-bed shelter proposed for their street.

After an investigation, Salt Lake City’s health department sent Hennacy a letter on Aug. 9, 1965, informing him his “dwelling will be closed to occupancy, and the providing of food and shelter for transients will be discontinued.”

He was booted out and the city arranged for the sale of his house.

“They sold it for the $7640 that I still owed on it, so I got nothing out of it,” Hennacy, then 72, wrote to a friend. “I have gone over every block for miles to find a new place where there is a house by itself, for the Health Dept. would not let me get by with any other kind.”

This was the second time the city had shut down the self-described Catholic anarchist, controversial long before his arrival in Utah four years earlier. Hennacy had been showing up in newspapers across the country as a death penalty opponent and a conscientious objector who had spent nearly two years in a federal prison for refusing to register for the draft in World War I.

He wouldn’t pay taxes because he didn’t want any of his money funding the military. He wrote to the Internal Revenue Service each year explaining why he wasn’t paying up.

(photo courtesy Jerry Currier) Ammon Hennacy and Carol Gorgen speak to passersby at the corner of 400 S Main in downtown Salt Lake City as they protest paying taxes in 1961 because as pacifists they were opposed to funding the military.

While his activities endeared him to social justice advocates, it put him at odds with most Americans.

“Salt Lake City was quietly minding its own business last week when Ammon Hennacy blew into town,” The Salt Lake Tribune reported in 1961, quipping: “Don’t say you weren’t warned.”

To describe Hennacy’s time in Utah, The Tribune relied on letters, interviews, books and an unpublished biography written by Hennacy’s widow, Joan Thomas.

‘A place to sleep’

Dorothy Day, easily the most prominent figure in the Catholic Worker movement, had sent Hennacy to Salt Lake City to open a homeless shelter.

Raised by Quaker parents in Ohio, Hennacy had become a committed Christian after reading the Bible, and specifically the Sermon on the Mount, “scores of times” while in solitary confinement as a conscientious objector during WWI, he said.

“I read of Jesus,” Hennacy would later write, “who was confronted with a whole world empire of tyranny and chose not to overturn the tyrant and make Himself king, but to change the hatred in the hearts of men to love and understanding.”

In the 1940s, Hennacy worked as a migrant laborer in the southwest. Taxes weren’t deducted from the pay he earned as a day laborer, allowing him to avoid funding government projects he opposed.

While in Arizona, he wrote for a newspaper published by The Catholic Worker, a group of left wing Catholic activists who had started homeless shelters in New York City and around the country. Hennacy moved to New York in the 1950s to work more closely with the group and converted to Catholicism. He was in and out of jail dozens of times after his federal prison sentence, typically for protests, such as picketing against mandatory air raid drills in New York.

Sent to Utah, he named each of his three homeless shelters the Joe Hill House, named after the labor icon who had been executed in Salt Lake City amid national controversy nearly half a century earlier.

“The Joe Hill House was Ammon’s real world enactment of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which was always his basic religious text,” said William Marling, a professor at Case Western Reserve University who is writing a biography about Hennacy.

“Since he had shared prison cells, on more than one occasion, with unrepentant murderers, Ammon was under no illusions about the rehabilitation of the down-and-out, alcoholics, or vagabonds.

“He gave them a place to sleep, often a pallet on the floor, and basic grub — and some of them saw the light. They felt that an angel had brushed by them. They straightened out their lives,” Marling wrote in an email.

‘Bootleg charity’

The first Joe Hill House opened in November 1961, in a storefront on what is now Market Street in downtown Salt Lake City. Hennacy picked fruit in Bountiful to help pay the rent; people donated food and money; and local Unitarians and a few wards of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints offered help.

“He got his food by what is known today as dumpster diving,” said Joan Thomas, who married Hennacy in 1965. Grocery stores also donated produce, which he would pick up on foot, pushing a grocery cart to and from the house, she said.

Hennacy wrote to a friend, saying, “People bring us enough. The only thing is I can’t get away much, or the drunks would take over.”

But the city was starting to take notice. The fire department told him he couldn’t have more than 10 people a night, threatening to close him down.

“I told them that I would continue to bootleg charity and would tear down any notice they put up or break any padlock they fixed and would go to jail and fight them like Brigham Young fought the US army,” Hennacy later wrote.

The city closed the downtown site in 1963. After he had trouble finding a second location, Hennacy used money from Day to buy the house on West Temple in July 1964.

“Now I have a place for my radical operations where no one can chase me [out],” he said.

But he was there for just over a year before complaints from neighbors prompted the city to take the house and sell it in 1965.

‘Such radical Catholics’

(photo courtesy Joe Bauman) (photo courtesy Joe Bauman) A group of Vietnam war protesters led by Ammon Hennacy (not pictured) march to the Cathedral of the Madeleine on Oct. 21, 1967, as a stand against the local diocese's support of the war.

While running his shelters, Hennacy continued to protest against capital punishment. He led annual protests on the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. As the war in Vietnam intensified, he led anti-war marches that often ended at the Cathedral of the Madeleine, because Bishop Joseph Federal supported the war.

When he first arrived in Salt Lake City, Hennacy had written to Federal to explain his plans to open the Joe Hill House.

“In this conservative community it is likely that folks have never heard of such radical Catholics,” Hennacy wrote.

Federal responded plainly: “I wish you to understand that your activities here do not have our approval and the name of the Diocese is not to be used in any way in connection with your actions.”

Hennacy described his anarchism by identifying with the apostle Peter, who he said “chose to obey God rather than the properly constituted authorities who placed him in jail,” pointing to the “victory of these men by courage and peaceful methods.”

His philosophy relied on “voluntary cooperation” to act for the common good. “An anarchist is somebody who doesn’t need a cop to make him behave,” he’d say.

In 1963, he wrote to LDS Church President David O. McKay to ask about the faith’s stand on capital punishment. McKay’s office responded that the church had no official statement and referred him to the church’s Articles of Faith, which say Mormons believe in “honoring, obeying and sustaining the law.”

This unwillingness to take a position, coupled with what he saw as the church’s consistent support for war, led him to say that Mormonism was too “bloodthirsty and conservative.”

Even so, LDS bishop Neal A. Maxwell, who would later serve as a member of the church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, invited Hennacy to discuss his work on Maxwell’s show on KUED. Hennacy said Maxwell told him, “Mormons are supposed to search for the truth and if I had more or less of it, it would be good” for Maxwell’s audience.

Thomas said she and Hennacy generally “thought highly” of Mormons, appreciating “their heroic past and plus their charity among their own. We had good Mormon friends who prayed for us so that we, as gentiles, would be assured of a place in their afterworld.”

The last Joe Hill House

Hennacy eventually found a rental home, at about 400 W. 3500 South, where he opened the third Joe Hill House by the end of 1965.

About this time, Jean Chanonat, a student from France, had been introduced to Hennacy by their mutual friend, Bruce Phillips — the labor activist and folk singer later known as Utah Phillips.

Today, Chanonat describes the Joe Hill House as “plain rebellion against the growing uniformity of American life, against the fake morality of the churches.”

Chanonat had moved to Utah with his family after briefly converting to Mormonism, and he was deported following a Vietnam protest in 1970.

“I had a great respect for Ammon,” he said. “His attitude toward poverty was honest and real.”

Moving the Joe Hill House away from downtown hurt their efforts to help the homeless they had previously served, he said. Young people on their way to San Francisco’s famed Haight-Ashbury scene would stay at the house. As fighting escalated in Vietnam, it started to harbor conscientious objectors and held meetings on how to oppose the war. Women also began staying there.

In 1968, Hennacy’s rent increased substantially after his landlord’s property taxes nearly tripled. The police were also paying unwanted attention to the house, after they arrested a man for hiding stolen merchandise there without Hennacy’s knowledge.

Hennacy was evicted. And at age 75, he was also exhausted. He wrote to a friend: “We had to quit. Just as well as it has about as it has about worn me out.”

The Joe Hill House had filled a gap in services for the homeless. Organizations like Travelers’ Aid had been helping homeless women and children get hotel rooms as early as 1933. Men could get a bed at the Salvation Army, but only for one night a month.

But as Hennacy’s last location closed, the providers grappling with today’s homeless crisis were launching.

St. Vincent’s De Paul started serving meals in Salt Lake City in 1967. Four years after that, Crossroads Urban Center opened a free hostel for men and women. In 1972, the Salt Lake City Rescue Mission was founded. In 1988, the Road Home opened as an expansion of the services provided previously by Travelers’ Aid.

Hennacy continued his activism. He was walking up the State Street hill to a protest at the state Capitol when he suffered a heart attack on Jan. 8, 1970.

From his hospital bed, he dictated a final statement to Thomas. “Someday Christians of this state and other states will not take upon them the vengeance of the Old Testament God,” he said. “But will do as Christ and Gandhi said to do, return good for evil. I have been picketing and saying this for the last nine years in Salt Lake City and will continue to do so as long as I live.”

He died in the hospital on Jan. 14, 1970.

Hennacy hadn’t feared death, Thomas said. “Ammon had a favorite statement which he often quoted: ’If you’re not ready to die, you’re not ready to live.’”