One woman’s restless, decadeslong quest to lift up homeless Utahns led to the opening Tuesday of a brand new living center on Salt Lake City’s west side.
Pamela Atkinson, dubbed the state’s version of Mother Teresa for her lifelong work, said that since last April’s groundbreaking for the five-story apartment complex to be known as Pamela’s Place, people she assists daily on the streets have kept her updated on its progress.
“It’s been very good for their self-esteem because it wasn’t taking an old building and remodeling it,” Atkinson said as part of a ribbon-cutting and emotional celebration at the newly finished facility, at 525 S. 500 West.
“It’s a brand new building, and very few of my homeless friends have had anything brand new for many years,” she said. The longtime advocate for the disadvantaged added later that “when you walk into the building, this does not feel like a shelter. This literally feels like home.”
The nonprofit Housing Authority of Salt Lake City will offer 100 small apartments of permanent, supportive and rent-subsidized housing at Pamela’s Place.
Units in the $13.6 million housing complex will give chronically homeless and disabled residents a stable living setting while they address other needs, with case managers, a rare 24-hour health clinic and community spaces, as well as a kitchen, garden and pet-care areas.
“It doesn’t mean people live here forever. But it does mean they don’t have to worry about being evicted or displaced,” said the housing authority’s executive director, Daniel Nackerman. “This great new community of homes will have safe and stable housing at a time we really need it in this country.”
Nackerman noted the opening also coincided with the city housing authority’s 50th anniversary in what he called “truly a remarkable milestone."
Funding for the project has come from a range of city, state and private sources, including loans from Salt Lake City and its Redevelopment Agency to purchase the site, as well as low-income government tax credits to keep rents lower. It’s part of as many as 242 new units of this kind of housing coming online in Utah’s capital in recent years.
But Tuesday’s opening and virtual event — attended by well-wishers around the world — saw tributes come pouring in for Atkinson, led by many of Utah’s top politicians. The London native, philanthropist and elder in the First Presbyterian Church has devoted more than two decades of advocating for Utah’s homeless, refugee and downtrodden families, they noted.
“She shows that by her actions, she does love her neighbors as herself and does everything she can to help improve their situation,” Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said, followed by video kudos sent by Sen. Mitt Romney, Rep. Chris Stewart, leaders from Utah’s tribes and top federal housing officials.
“Whether it’s a business person, a community advocate, a county legislator or a state representative, when Pamela arrives, people listen,” said Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson.
In her self-effacing way, Atkinson said that seeing the building open in her namesake was like “a hundred Christmases rolled into one. ... It’s been an honor for me to serve with you," she said of colleagues in the room and online.
“Part of why this is so humbling," Atkinson said of Pamela’s Place, "is because of what’s going to happen here. There’s going to be a sense of hope, and when our homeless friends have that sense of hope, that’s when they can start to make progress.”