This greenhouse full of survival gear turned into a community space for Utahns experiencing homelessness

Welcome to the Coconut Hut, where the unsheltered find practical supplies and advice for surviving the long, cold winter.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Billy Ray Bratcher gathers coats and blankets at the Coconut Hut, at Wasatch Community Gardens' Green Phoenix Farm, on Wednesday Jan. 4, 2023.

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The winter survival guide is full of practical advice.

“Line the inside of your tent walls with space blankets & duct tape to keep the heat in,” one page advises.

“Hand sanitizer makes great fuel in a pinch and can burn in a can (like a soup or beer can) as a small stove if need be. Fold in the top lip of the can so that if it gets knocked over it is less likely to spill everywhere.”

The winter survival guide is one of many resources available at the Coconut Hut, a place where unsheltered people can go and collect crucial gear to endure the freezing season.

The Coconut Hut is tucked away in a greenhouse at the Green Phoenix Farm, just west of downtown Salt Lake City. It provides what Courtney “Coco” Giles calls “survival gear” for people living on the streets this winter.

Tables are set up in a semicircle and people come in to pick up sleeping bags that guarantee warmth to 0 degrees. There are hygiene kits, warm clothes and hand sanitizer to burn for warmth.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A booklet of "Winter Tips" accompanies a survival bag with a tarp, propane and hand sanitizer at the Coconut Hut, at Wasatch Community Gardens' Green Phoenix Farm, on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023.

The goal is to make sure “that our unsheltered folks who are either not able to go into a shelter for whatever reason, or if they don’t want to go into a shelter, have everything they need to survive for a night,” Giles explained. “If they make it through the night and their things get taken by an abatement or the police the next day they can come and get the exact same things.”

Bulletin boards are filled with information on social services resources, open shelters and a tally of the number of people helped. Colorful thank you notes sprawl across one table.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Thank you notes from people who have received donations cover a table at the Coconut Hut, at Wasatch Community Gardens' Green Phoenix Farm, on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023.

Even on a cold, gray day, the light seems bright in the greenhouse. People coming in to get a tarp or sleeping bag stick around and help others sort through supplies or pick out a new coat and find a pair of warm socks.

“It’s a space for the community to volunteer, be together, celebrate and laugh,” Giles said. “I’m all about the laughter.”

The Coconut Hut is among a growing grassroots effort to reach unsheltered people where they are — call it a “pop-up” approach to chipping away at homelessness.

Some people gather their friends and show up with a hot meal for people living under freeway overpasses. Others, like the Food Justice Coalition, provide meals to people living on the margins. The work grows out of a public desire to “do something” — to help meet a need and to supplement government programs and policy in addressing a seemingly endless tide of homelessness.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A man named Dan shops for warm clothing at the Coconut Hut on Wednesday Jan. 4, 2023.

“We need a lot of basic needs taken care of,” said Andrew Johnston, director of homelessness policy outreach for the Salt Lake City mayor’s office. “Groups that come together and volunteer their time, money, resources — I think it’s helpful.”

Johnston, a former Salt Lake City Council member and a social worker, said the city can help through grants to fund the work. “You don’t expect people to kind of go through the city for all this work, because most of the work is being done by grassroots organizations and nonprofits,” Johnston said. “We want to encourage them to be proactive, and do what they do best out there in their niche, and then support them however we can.”

The Coconut Hut is different from other resources, Giles said, because every Tuesday and Wednesday people can come in and pick up what they want and need. It’s a reliable place to get a warm jacket, or a can of Sterno but also a space to socialize and find community.

Get help, give help

“I think one of the main positives of this space,” Giles wrote in a text, “is that they feel welcome and safe enough to not only get items but to stick around and help, allowing them something to do which in turn gives them dignity and purpose.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Advocate Coco Giles helps Billy Ray Bratcher load supplies into a trash bag that he can carry to his camp from the Coconut Hut, at Wasatch Community Gardens' Green Phoenix Farm, on Wednesday Jan. 4, 2023.

Giles is an advocate for Wasatch Community Gardens Green Phoenix Farm’s “Green Team.” Through her work with that program, she spends a lot of time driving around Salt Lake City, getting to know unsheltered individuals and helping them navigate the labyrinth of social services.

The farm is just a few blocks northwest of the Rio Grande Depot, where other social services are offered, and focuses on helping unsheltered women through job training and mentorship. Graduates of the Green Phoenix Farm’s program also volunteer at the Coconut Hut.

But from December through February the job retraining program closes to prepare for the next season. (The Coconut Hut will shut down for the winter on Feb. 4 for spring planning, but organizers plan to reopen.)

This year, Giles took that time to open the Coconut Hut in the farm’s greenhouse, teaming up with Angela Arnell.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Volunteer Angela Arnell began helping at the Coconut Hut after doing her own outreach to the unsheltered community. Here she helps with survival kits on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023.

Arnell was helping unsheltered Utahns on her own for the past year and a half and met Giles in October. “I just know a lot of people that want to provide support and Courtney knows a lot of people that need it,” Arnell said.

One volunteer raised funds and purchased over a 100 sleeping bags made to withstand below-freezing temperatures.

Cameron Giles (not related to Courtney), discovered the Coconut Hut through a roommate who started volunteering after seeing an Instagram post. Cameron wanted to help too. He is recovering from a heroin addiction and “was semi-homeless for a few years,” he said. “So I have a light understanding of how much it can suck.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Volunteer Cameron Giles hands out a sleeping bag at the Coconut Hut, at Wasatch Community Gardens' Green Phoenix Farm, on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023.

Volunteering at the Coconut Hut is a simple way to get involved. “I needed something positive for my recovery,” Cameron said. “Something to do with my time to keep me busy.”

“I think especially during the winter,” he said. “It’s good for us to try and watch out for each other.”

“Well, what else is needed?”

At least five people died on the streets this winter. Advocates began warning in early November that family shelters were at capacity. During a news conference staged at the state Capitol Bill Tibbitts, deputy executive director of Crossroads Urban Center, warned that children and families were being turned away from shelters.

In late December Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall signed an emergency order expanding shelter space.

“We’ve got a lot more overflow emergency shelters than we had in the past,” Johnston said. “It may not be enough still, especially statewide. And that then leads to that other question of, well, what else is needed? Whether it’s tarps or tents, sleeping bags, those kinds of things.”

Unsheltered people camping this winter say rapid intervention teams and law enforcement keep throwing away their gear. The rapid intervention team cleaned the Rio Grande area 28 times in the past few months, the Tribune previously reported.

Billy Ray Bratcher, 55, said his belongings have been thrown away at least three times. “If we’re not there they come and they throw our stuff away, and we lose all our property so we have to start over,” Bratcher said.

“I wouldn’t say it’s intimidation, but it’s constant harassment,” he said. “[We’re] being threatened that if we don’t take our tents down we’re gonna go to jail and it’s raining and snowing.”

The survival kits, clothing and other supplies “have helped tremendously,” Bratcher said, “because the weather’s just been really, really bad.”

Kenya was busy helping her friends pick out clothes when she finally stepped away to talk about the Coconut Hut. “I love this place,” she said.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Coco Giles marks off the number of people served at the Coconut Hut, at Wasatch Community Gardens' Green Phoenix Farm, on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023.

That January morning she and Bratcher, who are partners, were told to take down the tarp and umbrella they had pitched as the rain poured down. “We’re not dogs,” Kenya said. “We don’t have to stand out here in the rain. It’s rough.”

“People have frozen to death,” Kenya said. “People I know, my friends, have frozen to death.”

“I’ve told a lot of people about this place,” she said. “Yeah, I tell everybody. Every week, I’m like, ‘are you going to the Coconut Hut?’”

To donate items to the Coconut Hut, or to learn more you can visit here.

Clarification, Jan. 26 12:09 p.m.: This story has been updated to clarify that five people died on the streets this winter, but the medical examiner’s office is still determining the exact cause of death.