‘We bribe them with $2 and cigarettes’: Why a Salt Lake grassroots program is thriving

Street Tai Chi is fostering trust, clarity and togetherness for one of the most vulnerable populations.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Members of the unsheltered community participate in tai chi at the City Library in Salt Lake City, Thursday, April 14, 2022.

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

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Upon arriving at the main library in Salt Lake City, a man is visibly nervous with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth.

The man, Colby, sits on a log while his friend straps a pair of stilts to his feet. When Colby tries to stand, Bernie Hart, the co-founder of the Salt Lake City nonprofit Understanding Us, holds onto him as he reaches for the slackline above him.

Hart offers words of encouragement and soft explanations.

“That’s your body telling you something’s not right. It’s anxiety,” Hart says to Colby as he adjusts to the learning curve of being 10-feet tall. “Feel your feet.”

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Benjamin Bandfield, left, prepares stilts for Colby, an unsheltered individual, before tai chi at the City Library.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bernie Hart, left, smiles as Colby, an unsheltered individual, completes walking on stilts. Hart calls the stilts exercise a lesson in uncertainty and gaining confidence in uncomfortable situations.

It took all of seven minutes, if that, before Colby’s anxiety evaporated and he was walking on the stilts alone with a big smile on his face.

As Colby familiarizes himself, Hart shouts, “You’re so cool!” with a big chuckle.

His wife and co-founder of Understanding Us, Marita Hart, says it’s impossible to ignore Bernie, especially with that laugh. “You can hear him in a crowd,” she said with equal measures of admiration and exasperation.

The stilts are just one of many trust exercises the Harts facilitate for Utah’s street community.

Their main program is Salt Lake City Street Tai Chi which unites, empowers and supports the street community (the Harts and tai chi participants prefer “street community” over the homeless community) through the ancient Chinese practice.

Bernie, 81, and Marita, 79, started SLC Street Tai Chi seven years ago. The Harts felt no one was working to improve the lives of Utah’s street populations in such an interpersonal way. The lack of support for Utahns living on the street is what drew Bernie to facilitate a space where they felt safe, trusted and noticed.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Marita and Bernie Hart, the organizers of Salt Lake City Street Tai Chi. The Harts have been leading the group for six years.

The positive benefits of tai chi are undeniable, the Harts say. Bernie knew the impact that slow, controlled movements would have on people who have experienced trauma. He assumes everyone he works with in the program is navigating some kind of post-traumatic stress or mental illness.

The foundation

It began with one person joining Bernie for tai chi outside The Road Home. Since then, the grassroots program has exploded. Now, roughly 50 people attend regularly and it’s entirely run by the street community.

Even when COVID-19 shut down the program for a period, members of the street community continued to organize sessions in various locations throughout Salt Lake City.

Bernie and Marita know everyone by name. If they don’t, they’ll be sure to learn it. In fact, they keep an attendance sheet of everyone who comes to tai chi, which is held at the library quad every Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday at 10 a.m. Some people show up four times a week; others drop in now and again.

No matter how often they go, the program carries on. If it snows, they bring shovels.

Everyone who participates is greeted with a warm cup of coffee and a breakfast burrito. After tai chi, everyone turns in a ticket that they can exchange for $2 or a pack of hand-rolled cigarettes.

“We wanted them to participate in tai chi and learn the benefits of it. So we bribe them with $2 and cigarettes,” Bernie said with his trademark laugh.

The power of movement

Greg Power attends every tai chi session he can. Four days a week for the last five years.

He hands out the cigarettes and money at the end of every session. He knows every name. If he doesn’t know the name, he’ll be sure to ask in his faint New Zealand accent.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Greg Power distributes two dollars or cigarettes to members of the unsheltered community after completing tai chi.

On this particular Wednesday morning in late March, Power walked to the edge of the library courtyard as 50 sets of eyes followed.

Everyone fell silently into formation across the quad and mimicked Power’s tai chi movements. A man who’d had what his fellow tai chi members labeled a schizophrenic episode before tai chi started immediately calmed down and began leading the group alongside Power.

Arms flowed in unison. The footsteps are nearly in sync.

“Look how calm it is,” Power said after tai chi. “If you told the average citizen of Salt Lake that there’s going to be 50 homeless people somewhere, they’d be like ‘Oh my God! They’re going to set fire to the place.’ But they’re not right.”

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Greg Power leads members of the unsheltered community in tai chi. He has been attending four days a week for the last five years.

Participants complete a round of stretches before leading into two tai chi sequences, consisting of about 70 motions. Some people have the moves memorized, like Power. He says it took him all of a month to learn them.

When the group completes a sequence, they clap and cheer briefly before swiftly moving on to the next one. Once the sequences are done, everyone huddles together in a big circle to finish off the session with breathing exercises. They come together organically.

“It’s like a symphony,” Lisa Hyte said, a recent newcomer who helps brew the coffee and cook the breakfast burritos for tai chi in the mornings.

Hyte, who attends the First Unitarian Church with the Harts, said she was inspired by the selflessness and the transformations she sees it make for the street community. She wanted to get involved. So, together, they got the church to let them use the kitchen four days a week to prepare the food and coffee for tai chi.

“[SLC Street Tai Chi] is reaching out to the community, social justice and healing,” Hyte said. “It’s just moments of magic around here.”

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Once the tai chi sequences are done, everyone huddles together in a big circle to finish off the session with breathing exercises.

It’s true, according to Power. He’s witnessed the same in other street community members that join in on the exercises. He’s experienced the transformation Hyte describes, although he won’t talk about it because he says it’s not about him, it’s about community.

“It’s about getting people moving. It gives structure and purpose,” Power said. “And it’s damn good for the homeless.”

The transformation beyond the quad

It was a frigid Utah morning when Bernie and Marita first met Mohammed Elamin. Elamin was wrapped in a blanket on the streets with no shoes on, Bernie recalls. Originally from Sudan, Elamin moved to Utah in 2003 as a refugee.

He didn’t know a thing about tai chi but watched the sessions happen at the library quad for a while before joining the crowd himself. It only took one session for Elamin. He’s been an avid participant for years now.

“I feel a lot clearer and I’m physically doing good,” Elamin said, gesturing to his head and torso. “It’s held me together, especially on my off days.”

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) “It’s about getting people moving. It gives structure and purpose,” said Greg Power.

Before Maria Humphrey became a regular at tai chi, she was surviving at The Road Home after being discharged from the hospital for trying to take her own life. She didn’t have any other place to go.

Things started to change when she met Bernie outside The Road Home four years ago. She was sitting on a bench when Bernie approached her and invited her to join tai chi with Marita and the group.

“They were the first ones that said my name,” Humphrey said, “which does your mental health a heckuva lot because when you’re homeless, you’re not a name.”

A research project presented at the 2022 Utah Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters by Salt Lake Community College student Kambry Woodbury, found 68% of tai chi participants experienced suicidal thoughts. The project also highlighted the reason people show up to tai chi, including friendship, structure, improved mental health and comradery.

And to Bernie’s knowledge, not a single person has died by suicide since starting the program.

Unfortunately, it’s the only research done on the program. However, the Harts wish that wasn’t the case.

They’ve reached out to several research intuitions, including the University of Utah and the Huntsman Mental Health Institute, in an effort to collect concrete data about the positive impact the program is having. The Harts also attempted to reach out to the city and state about their program. No bite.

They believe they aren’t taken seriously by large-scale research centers because there’s no data to match the lived experience piece.

“You can’t talk about ideas if they’re new without data,” Bernie said. “We really need somebody from the system that wants success for this group, rather than to maintain the status quo.

“In the meantime, we’re trying to demonstrate that what we’re doing is helping people, so that people get curious about what we’re doing.”

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) “I have more confidence. I believe that if I want something, I can get it,” said Maria Humphrey. “And I know if things get bad, they’ll be there at the library.”

For Humphrey, the simple act of the Harts calling her by name was a game-changer. Through tai chi, she discovered her inner strength, a robust community and most of all, confidence.

“It taught me to speak,” Humphrey said, “and made me feel like a person again.”

If Humphrey could let the city and state know one thing, it’s that tai chi works. She would like to see leaders and behavioral health facilities get involved in the tai chi program.

With the confidence and motivation tai chi gave her, she was able to leave the shelter and find permanent housing.

When she first moved into her own place, she was nervous. Murphey says she’d never worked with electric appliances before. But Bernie and Marita came over, helped her set up her own space and turned her apartment into a home.

Most importantly, Humphrey hasn’t returned to the same headspace she was in when she was admitted to the hospital.

She looks forward to seeing her friends. She says everyone who attends tai chi looks out for each other. They have one another’s back.

“I have more confidence. I believe that if I want something, I can get it,” Humphrey said. “And I know if things get bad, they’ll be there at the library.”