Based on where the white sheet was spread out in the park strip of the Smith’s grocery store on 600 East, Chris Christensen knew whose body lay underneath.
That was the corner where his friend Joe Howe always hung around, greeting people with a Midwestern drawl in his “howdy-do” and asking for spare change from his wheelchair as his scruffy dog slept nearby.
Christensen had seen Howe there the day before, still chatting with shoppers in the unbearable heat while most of the other folks experiencing homelessness in this area of downtown huddled in the small bits of shade they could find under the maples along the street. That day had been the third to top 100 degrees this summer in Salt Lake City — a spike that came earlier than ever before in Utah.
Now Christensen could see the wheelchair sitting nearby, empty. The dog, he guessed, had run away. As police spoke to witnesses, he crawled onto the grass next to his dead friend and started whispering to him.
“There is a God,” Christensen ministered, hoping it might bring comfort or peace. “The angels are going to come to you.”
Just after noon on June 18, officers removed Howe’s body and Christensen said a final prayer and goodbye. He was soaked in sweat by the time he made it back to his tree, worried about where to find water.
Howe’s death appears to have been caused by heat stroke, based on the police report obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune through a public records request and accounts from other homeless individuals and advocates who knew him.
They said Howe appeared sick the day before, pale and clammy and slightly confused — some of the symptoms of heat stroke. But he kept saying he had to get some cash so he could buy food.
“He certainly wasn’t looking right,” Christensen recalled. “But there wasn’t anything any of us could do. What could we even do?”
Christensen said being homeless in the summer — especially a summer that has been as brutally hot as this one — is a battle between trying to stay out of the heat long enough so you can stay alive but also trying to get out and panhandle for the money you need to eat so you can stay alive.
Weather has always been a threat for those living on the street. But as temperatures soar and records shatter, summer has become just as dangerous as the freezing winters in Salt Lake City, which have also killed members of the homeless community here.
And this summer has certainly felt like a major and dangerous shift, Christensen said. Sitting cross-legged on a green sleeping bag under his tree, he talked about the brutality. A little speaker played next to his setup, blasting Eddie Money and Elton John.
“The heat has just been so hard,” he said. “We try to be there for each other, but Joe still died. And I feel so bad.”
Christensen, 59, has been experiencing homelessness for seven years, after losing his son to cancer, losing his job from the grief and then losing his apartment. He’d known Howe most of the time he’s been out here.
Recording breaking heat
Now three months after Howe’s death, Salt Lake City has continued to hit records for extreme heat — not only starting earlier than ever in June but lasting longer than ever into September.
The capital has seen 34 days above 100 degrees this summer as of Wednesday. The previous record was 21 days, which came last year.
And every day brings a new record. The previous high for September was 101 degrees, which was broken on Saturday with 103. Then Monday got to 104. And Tuesday hit 105 and Wednesday 107 — a tie for the hottest ever temperature recorded in Salt Lake City, which also happened on July 17 this year.
The temperature was 101 degrees on June 17, the day before Howe died, when his friends said he was out in the sun with limited access to water and before he died the following morning.
After his death, several in the community of the homeless that live between 400 South and 500 South, by Trader Joe’s where the TRAX line runs throughout the day, built a little memorial for him.
Christensen said they filled paper bags with rocks and wrote messages on them like, “We will miss you” and “We will always love you.”
Robin Pendergrast, a photographer and an advocate for the homeless in Utah, said the memorial was meant to look like the displays that Howe was known for when he was alive.
Howe used to set up paper bags from Smith’s around his little encampment. He’d scrawl affirmations on them. Pendergrast remembered there was always one that said, “Kindness.”
Passersby would leave food in them, beans and bread. And Howe would then pass out the supplies to those in his community.
“He was adamant about passing out whatever he got,” Pendergrast said.
Pendergrast has been buying as many cases of water as he can to pass out himself to the homeless each week.
“It’s going to be hotter than hell this week,” he warned at the end of last month as he handed bottles out to those who remain where Howe used to live. It’s a sentence he has repeated many weeks this summer, including this week.
The activist worries that no one is caring for the homeless with the heat. Many are spread out, living here, or elsewhere outside the shelters downtown and up in the foothills behind the Utah Capitol.
The city and county have started planning to open additional space for winter. But Pendergrast asked: What about now? What about the summer? What can they be doing to help people like Howe?
“It’s a killer,” Pendergrast said. “The heat is literally a killer.”
During the last legislative session, lawmakers allocated $55 million to homelessness services. That’s less than the $128 million Gov. Spencer Cox had asked for and much less than the hundreds of millions that state auditors have said is needed to provide housing for the state’s growing homeless population.
Pendergrast said he’s frustrated. In other states, including Arizona, police officers go around passing out water on hot days; here, he said, it mostly falls to people like him. He’d like to see more of an effort from the city to at least provide water, but also to build tenting with fans so folks living outside can find some shade and cool off.
As he walked around asking folks if they wanted water, he got a cough as an answer from one tent. Another person thanked him, “Oh gosh, I don’t know what I would’ve done without this.”
Pendergrast said this is unsustainable.
What should be done about ‘absolutely unbearable’ conditions?
Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County have partnered to provide a cool zone program this summer. It’s meant for anyone without access to or the means to pay for air conditioning — and who might be at risk for overheating.
The zones include most of the senior centers in the county, which are open to anyone older than 60. Many libraries in the county and all in the city are also participating. Nicholas Rupp, a spokesperson for the Salt Lake County Health Department, said there has been outreach among the homeless to tell them about the program, which runs through Oct. 15.
“We do encourage people to take advantage of this,” Rupp said, noting that health experts do acknowledge the dangers of being out in the heat.
Andrew Wittenberg, the spokesperson for Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, added that the zones can provide “relief during the hottest part of the day.”
“We’re deeply concerned about our residents who may not have access to adequate hydration, shade and indoor space during these periods of extreme heat,” he said.
But the program has some hitches. There’s a map online of the locations, but many in the homeless community don’t have access to the internet. And some of the nearest locations are more than a mile away from where some are staying; a walk that long without water isn’t worth it for some.
“It’s just absolutely unbearable,” said Deja Hansen, 31.
She’s been living near Victory Road in the foothills north of Salt Lake City. The area is steep and scorched by a direct glare of the sun most of the day. Little lizards skittered across the gravel as she talked.
Hansen, who is pregnant and overdue, said she mostly just stays in her tent during the day to avoid the heat. She’s been in this area for about a year, staying even after county and city officials launched a large-scale abatement of the encampment in May.
She said she feels safer here than in other areas of the city, including the shelters, where she’s stayed and said her property has been stolen. But up here, the heat feels extreme.
Hansen said she recently lost a dog because of it and knows of at least five other dogs that have died, as well.
Jojo Lund, 33, who lives in a tent nearby with her husband and has been looking after Hansen with her pregnancy, said she’s also known three homeless individuals who have died this summer, and she thinks contributed. One couple, she said, was found holding each other under a tarp. Another person had barely made it to a nearby spring where they collapsed, she said.
There was no shade as Hansen and Lund made their way down a rocky road to get water to lug back up. There were a few syringes on the ground and a crushed-up box of mashed potatoes.
Lund and Hansen said it’s not feasible for them to go to the cool zones. And they’ve both tried to get housing help but said they’ve been denied.
Lund is currently working as a security guard for $14 an hour. “That’s just not enough to survive on,” she said. “There’s nothing else I can do.”
Hansen had been working as a housekeeper, she said, before she got COVID-19 and lost her job about two years ago at the start of the pandemic. Medical bills from cancer, she said, pushed her to the brink and she ended up out here.
Lund made the sign of the cross on her chest as they kept going down the mountain in a beat-up SUV with no air conditioning.
Sometimes, it’s just complicated, too, for folks here to get help or want to reach out for help. Criminal citations, including for loitering or public urination, can be one factor.
Howe, for instance, was a registered sex offender and based on that, he wouldn’t have been allowed in the cool zones in the city’s libraries; he was already cited in April 2016 for being in a place he wasn’t allowed to be because of his court order (that charge was later dismissed).
He’d pleaded guilty to a class A misdemeanor in September 2014 to lewdness involving a child after parents reported seeing him touching himself under his coat at a park. He was away from the playground, according to the police report, but because of the proximity of kids, the charges went forward.
In the police report on his death this summer, the officers noted finding his belongings in a clear Ziploc bag, including his sex offender registry ID. He was trying to abide by the law, said Christensen, his friend. Pendergrast said a social worker might have been able to help him; he called on the city to invest more in programs like that, focused on rehabilitation, instead of policing and abating homeless encampments.
But the programs set up now, including the cool zones, aren’t designed for some of people who need them most.
“I know Joe had a whole life before this,” Christensen added, “and he could’ve done more with the right resources. I’m not supposed to be homeless either.”
No drugs or paraphernalia were found with Howe’s belongings, according to the police report, which doesn’t refer to any suspected cause of his death.
[READER CAUTION: A photo of the scene where Howe died and was covered by a white sheet is included below.]
There are few records on Howe’s life. Based on the court filings, he was 39 years old when he died, born on April 17, 1983. It appears he grew up in Michigan. But Pendergrast said Howe often talked fondly of living in Ohio before coming to Utah.
He doesn’t know what brought him here. Attempts to reach Howe’s family were unsuccessful.
The police report also noted that Howe had been in the emergency room a few times in the months before he died; again, there’s no note as to why. Pendergrast believes Howe had diabetes, leading him to lose both of his legs and use prosthetics.
But no foul play was suspected in his death. The report said only that it was “unattended.” That means: He died alone. A person walking by noticed he wasn’t moving and called 911.
Angela Arnell, another activist who works with the homeless, said she was the one who found Howe the morning he died.
“All of these people were just walking by,” she said.
Arnell said Howe loved chocolate milk, and she helped him once get a new pair of crutches. He lost one foot, she said to frostbite. She’s not sure about how or why he lost the other.
He loved social justice, she added, after someone gave him some textbooks on the subject that he would read and re-read.
Christensen said he won’t forget the time he spent with Howe, saying everyone has a complicated backstory and this community of the homeless on 600 East is there for each other. They often share a snack and a short conversation.
As Christensen spoke, “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” played on his speaker. Pendergrast left two bottles of water for him.