For 48 years, Dave Matson has been making the rounds, mowing lawns. Maybe you’ve seen him in downtown Salt Lake City on his riding mower, going between the roughly 50 lawns he’s responsible for maintaining.
“My doctor says it’s good physical therapy,” Matson said, which is important, because Dave was born with cerebral palsy.
Back in 1992, Matson started selling flowers to make a little extra money, which has earned him the nickname “Dave The Flower Guy” when he’s appeared on X96′s “Radio From Hell Show” every Friday for the past 22 years to pick the “Boner of the Week” — awarded to the stupidest or worst person in the news.
Since he was 14, Matson lived with his stepmother, Erma, who raised him after his father, Jerry, died of a brain tumor. Erma worked as an elevator operator at the Hotel Utah and then, for a long time, as a nursing assistant at a nursing home, where she and Jerry first met, according to her sister, Donna Elcock.
Dave and Erma shared a one-bedroom apartment, living off their respective Social Security checks and the money Dave earned from his lawn-mowing and flower-selling jobs.
A few weeks ago, Dave came home to find his mother had fallen. He called an ambulance. Bloodwork taken at the hospital revealed she had acute leukemia and she was transferred to Huntsman Cancer Institute.
Ten days later, she died, leaving Matson on his own, really for the first time in his 61 years, and in a tough spot financially.
“My Social Security is only $750 and my rent is a thousand bucks,” Matson said, “so I gotta get a cheaper place.”
Elcock said she and her husband, who live in Wyoming, have tried to line her nephew up with some additional assistance, but ran into programs with enrollment freezes in place or other dead ends.
Matson doesn’t want to leave the city where he’s grown up. “People support me here,” he told me when we spoke, before he headed out to mow a couple more lawns.
“I really feel like he could be alone,” Elcock said, “but I just wish there was some kind of help he could get.”
His friends from “Radio From Hell” launched a GoFundMe page for Matson and listeners and friends have rallied to help in other ways, as well, a testament to the kind of person Dave is, Bill Allred, co-host of the morning show, told me.
“If you were just to judge him after 30 seconds of talking he would seem to have everything against him,” Allred said. “He has difficulty walking, he has difficulty talking sometimes, just getting the words out. He obviously has some disability and he would be easy to dismiss.
“But if you give him a second, he’s the most relentlessly upbeat, positive, hard-working, honest person that you would ever come in contact with.”
Back in 2006, City Weekly readers voted Matson “Best Utahn,” beating out then-Mayor Rocky Anderson and then-Gov. Jon Huntsman for the honor.
“He gets up and he goes every single day,” his aunt said. “I think my sister was always a real positive person even though they didn’t have very much, and I think he’s like that too.”
It’s inspiring to see a community rally around Dave — but it shouldn’t have to be this way.
We live in a state where people help their family and neighbors, and that’s a good thing, Andrew Riggle, an advocate with the Disability Law Center, told me. But it means often people don’t get connected with the social services and support systems available and they don’t know what to do when — like in Dave’s situation — they lose that support.
Add to that the fact that Utah’s system to help disabled individuals is badly underfunded. By the most recent estimate, there are more than 3,600 Utahns on the waiting list to receive services from the state’s Division of Services for People with Disabilities, and the waiting list has grown by about 1,500 in the past six years. The average wait is five years.
The gaps in the system have become more acute during the pandemic, Riggle said. It has made it much more difficult to provide face-to-face services or assistance in group settings.
“One of our concerns is that individuals may be losing out on opportunities for education, for community engagement, for all these different opportunities,” Riggle said.
The Legislature’s solution is asking voters to approve Amendment G to the constitution, which would allow lawmakers to spend education funds on social services — but in reality it just pits disabled Utahns against schools and doesn’t guarantee any added funds for either.
We need a real solution, and that means adequate funding. GoFundMe campaigns and relying on the goodwill of our community can’t fill the gaps in our frayed social safety net. And until we get serious about the issue, people like Dave are going to keep falling through those gaps.
If you’d like to help Dave The Flower Guy, you can contribute through the X96 GoFundMe page. If you would like adequate funding for social services for Utahns with disabilities, vote.