‘I can hardly look anyone in the eye’: St. George’s homeless feel shame in the conservative culture

Advocates believe many residents want to offer support but say there’s a need for awareness to reduce stigma.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Switchpoint Development director Linda Stay, right, embraces Jan Ericksen, a resident of the shelter in St. George on Friday, June 11, 2021.

Editor’s note • Through a grant from the Local Media Association, The Salt Lake Tribune is reporting on homelessness in Utah communities outside the Salt Lake Valley.

St. George • Sitting in the shade at a picnic table outside the Switchpoint shelter in St. George, Jerry hangs his head in his hands.

The 53-year-old Chicago transplant never imagined he’d find himself staying in a homeless center. He has a full-time job as a supervisor at Dean Foods and isn’t struggling financially. He doesn’t have a criminal record or abuse substances.

But when his landlord sold the town home he was leasing in June with just 15 days of notice, he couldn’t immediately find a new place to live in St. George’s tight rental market.

A Google search led him to Switchpoint.

“It’s very embarrassing,” said Jerry, who asked that his full name not be used because he hadn’t disclosed his living arrangements to his employer or to others he knows. “I’ve had a successful career and life. I’ve had a great life. This is like the lowest low. I can hardly look anybody in the eye, quite frankly.”

Research shows people experiencing homelessness often internalize negative perceptions of themselves — and several unsheltered individuals in this southern Utah community told The Salt Lake Tribune they feel stigma and shame. That could be amplified partly by what advocates say is a strong conservative culture in the region that sometimes blames people who become homeless.

Stigma is one of the major challenges the shelter is working to overcome, said Linda Stay, development director at Switchpoint. Some Washington County residents, she said, believe that those who have become unsheltered have chosen it, are addicts or have otherwise done something to deserve their position in life.

“I literally had a gentleman say, ‘Well, you’ve got to admit that 99% of them are just addicts,’” she recounted in a recent interview. “And I said, ‘I can tell you that 100% of the people that we come in contact with don’t want to be homeless. They don’t want to live this way. They don’t want to be lost. They just ... they’re trapped for whatever reason.’”

The shelter attempts to challenge these biases by sharing the stories of people experiencing homelessness on social media and asking volunteers to spread awareness about those they serve.

“We’re engaging our community as much as possible to overcome those stigmas,” Stay said, “and by putting out good videos and telling their stories and helping people to see the true face of those experiencing homelessness and poverty.”

In early June, Jerry was searching for a new place two or three times a day on Craigslist and other rental sites and was also on email lists for real estate agents in case someone listed an apartment with them. He had paid nearly $1,000 in application fees at that point, he said, but all of the units had fallen through.

Until he found somewhere to live, his plan was to continue sleeping in the shared dorms at Switchpoint and paying to keep his furniture and personal items in a climate-controlled storage unit nearby. And he continued to struggle with the emotional burden of being homeless.

“This is really hard,” he said, “and it’s really embarrassing.”

‘Heads down, no eye contact’

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jerry, a resident at the Switchpioint shelter in St. George on Friday, June 11, 2021. “This is really hard,” he said, “and it’s really embarrassing.”

St. George doesn’t have a broad camping ban, such as those in Salt Lake City, Provo or Ogden, said Capt. Curtis Spragg, who supervises the Police Department’s mountain bike patrol unit, which often interacts with unsheltered individuals.

But the city’s parks are closed in the evening, and people cannot leave their belongings unattended, he said, meaning that bedding or other camp gear can become “found property” if police run across it.

Efforts to crack down on camping contribute to the stigma those on the streets feel, according to advocates.

Fear of being hassled by police leaves many unsheltered people scattered and isolated, trying not to draw attention to themselves as they make their way through the city, said Skyler Marshall, a street outreach case manager at Youth Futures, a nonprofit that serves homeless youths in St. George.

“Walking down the street, you’ll see a lot of it — heads down,” he said. “There’s kind of like an idea of heads down, no eye contact.”

John and Emily, who asked to be identified only by their first names partly because of the stigma associated with homelessness, are among those who spend their days walking along St. George’s sunbaked streets, searching for work and for relief from the scorching summer heat.

At times, they’ll seek refuge at a gas station along one of the main roads, settling at one of the umbrella-shaded tables — and hoping an employee doesn’t kick them out after spotting the backpacks that can give them away as homeless. That happened to them recently, said Emily, a 23-year-old from Box Elder County.

“[The employee] waves her hand at us like we’re peasants,” she said. “It’s like, seriously? We’re just sitting here. We’re not harming anybody. We’re buying stuff from your store.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Emily, a woman experiencing homelessness, eats lunch at the Switchpoint shelter in St. George on Thursday, June 10, 2021.

It can start to feel like there’s no way for them to escape the “no trespassing” and “no loitering” signs, they said. When Emily and John once tried to rest in a park, she said, someone called authorities to report them as suspicious, and a police officer forced them out. They were just taking a nap, she said.

Both have chosen to camp out rather than sleep at Switchpoint, the city’s only adult homeless shelter. Emily tried staying there for a bit but got tired of the “drama and BS” among some of the residents, she said. John, 53, said he feels boxed in by shelters.

But finding a place to camp where they won’t be bothered by police is no easy feat — although John said he’s gotten “skillful” at it.

If they bed down in a highly visible or well-lit area, they risk being disturbed by law enforcement. But sleeping in the shadows has its own drawbacks, Emily said, with cockroaches and biting insects keeping them awake at night.

“It’s not pretty being homeless,” John said, “especially here.”

‘Admit that you’re homeless’

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Krista Whipple, program manager at the St. George Youth Futures shelter, on Thursday, June 10, 2021.

Homeless campers in St. George often opt to sleep on property owned by the Bureau of Land Management or in their cars. They rarely set up visible encampments, like the kind often seen lining the streets in Salt Lake City.

“St. George police [are] very good at seeing people and moving them right along, and they won’t let homeless people set up encampments,” said Krista Whipple, program manager at Youth Futures.

The adult shelter is often full, she said. Street outreach workers struggle to find the places where people are sleeping instead “because they move their camps, and they hide from the police.”

Most of the clients served at Youth Futures, a St. George shelter for 12- to 18-year-olds, either return to their families or move out on their own when they become adults. But those who age out of the center and don’t have anywhere else to go refuse to stay at Switchpoint, Whipple says.

“They would rather go camp in the desert and sleep in a cave than go to the adult shelter,” she said. “I’ve never been able to get a kid to go to the adult shelter.”

Some of these young people have had negative experiences in adult shelters in the past, if they were homeless with their parents, that keep them from seeking help at Switchpoint, she said. For most, though, their resistance is rooted in stigma.

“Here, it’s just a house with other teenagers,” Whipple said of the Youth Futures shelter. “It’s just, like, a crash pad. They come here, they hang out with their friends. The staff is really cool. We wear tie-dye T-shirts. It’s just a house, right?

“But an adult homeless shelter is a homeless shelter. And now you have to admit that you’re homeless.”

In a similar way, staff at Youth Futures work to address drug and alcohol addiction among teens without shaming them, Whipple said. Substance use is not allowed inside the facility, and staffers talk to kids about changing their behavior in addition to coordinating education and other services — but they don’t turn young people away simply because they’re addicted.

Marshall believes many people in St. George want to support those who find themselves homeless.

“We just need to spread the word a lot more,” he said. “I think there needs to be a bigger voice for the voiceless.”

‘My attitude has changed’

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jan Ericksen landed in a homeless shelter for the first time in her life, at age 75. She doesn’t have much: A fixed income of $1,429 a month between her pension and Social Security, a storage unit full of her belongings and a heart-shaped gold pendant that her granddaughter — her “sweet pea” — gave her during a recent visit to the shelter. She was photographed at the Switchpioint shelter in St. George on Friday, June 11, 2021.

When officers interact with people on the streets, Spragg said, their goal is to share the resources available, from mental health care to housing. Most people want shelter, a job and to leave homelessness, he said, but there are a handful who “enjoy being alone” and turn down the help.

“They, in the end, have a decision and a choice that they can make,” he said. “Those resources will always be offered. It does not mean that we give up.”

Seeking help can be difficult for people who aren’t used to accepting it — or who have internalized the stigma often attached to homelessness.

When Jan Ericksen landed in a homeless shelter for the first time in her life, at age 75, it took her awhile to get “off the pity pot,” she said in a June interview. She didn’t immediately warm to other Switchpoint residents and doesn’t like accepting things for free.

In her case, homelessness was the byproduct of family discord. She left her Salt Lake City apartment and moved to St. George several years ago to live in a “casita” adjoining a relative’s home. But she left earlier this year when the relationship soured.

She doesn’t have much: A fixed income of $1,429 a month between her pension and Social Security, a storage unit full of her belongings and a heart-shaped gold pendant that her granddaughter — her “sweet pea” — gave her during a recent visit to the shelter.

And if a subsidized apartment didn’t open up for her on one of the housing waitlists, she wasn’t sure what would happen next. “I don’t want to be on the street,” she said. “But if I had to, I would.”

Ericksen said she at first felt removed from others at Switchpoint and didn’t see herself in the stories of substance use or mental illness that some around her shared. One evening, she remembers praying, “I can’t do this anymore. I can’t do it.”

After that night, “my attitude has changed so very much,” she said. “People I never thought I would want to associate with are my best friends.”

With the little she has, she tries to help them out. When a new roommate comes in, she gives them a few of her “Switch-bucks,” credits that residents earn by doing work around the shelter and can spend on clothes or shoes at the nonprofit. She also gave money to a friend who couldn’t pay for car repairs.

She still believes some people in the shelter are a “little crazy.” But, she laughs, “so am I. It just might not be as visible all the time.”

“I have been humbled in many ways. … I mean, who the heck did I think I was, that I was better than they? Shame on me,” she said. “I’ve learned the compassion that all of us should have for those that are less fortunate.”

Aug. 18, 2021, 5:30 p.m.: This story has been updated to include a broader description of services offered by Youth Futures.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The food pantry at the Switchpoint shelter in St. George on Friday, June 11, 2021.