‘I was in a safe place’ — Palmer Court in Salt Lake City celebrates a decade of helping people leave chronic homelessness

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Pamela Atkinson embraces a resident of Palmer Court in Salt Lake City on Thursday June 13, 2019. The Road Home celebrated the 10-year anniversary of Palmer Court.

Valeria Kolar said she turned to drugs and alcohol to feel normal, to push away the traumatic memories that had destroyed her sense of safety.

The substances brought her comfort but also took their own toll. She ended up homeless in Salt Lake City, camping in various spots because she was too afraid of other people to sleep in a shelter.

But 10 years ago, her life changed when she landed her own apartment in a new supportive housing development called Palmer Court. Having her own space, she found she no longer needed substances for survival. Instead, she was able to seek counseling for the past trauma that was affecting her.

“I didn’t have to use to feel OK. I was in a safe place for a minute, you know? And that was the first OK-ness in my life,” Kolar, 58, said.

On Thursday, Kolar gathered with other residents in the honeysuckle-scented courtyard of Palmer Court to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the community operated by The Road Home nonprofit.

With 201 apartment units, the complex at 999 Main St. in Salt Lake City is Utah’s largest permanent supportive housing community and is home to 208 adults and 73 children. Forty-seven households, Kolar’s among them, have been there for all 10 years.

"'I'm happy at Palmer Court,' I hear some of my formerly homeless friends say," Pamela Atkinson, a longtime advocate for the homeless, said during Thursday's celebration. "That sense of dignity that you have given to each and every resident here, that is what is amazing."

More than 900 people have lived at Palmer Court, a retrofitted hotel, since its opening in 2009. Residents have access to onsite services, such as Head Start programs for young children and case management, so that they can leave chronic homelessness, according to a news release.

The nonprofit Shelter the Homeless owns the site and The Road Home manages it, a partnership the two organizations replicated for the Wendell Apartments, a 32-unit community at 204 W. 200 North.

Michelle Flynn, associate executive director of The Road Home, said her nonprofit works with the Housing Authority of Salt Lake City and with Housing Connect to identify people in need of permanent supportive housing. Through a prioritization system, individuals and families are matched to the type of housing that would best suit them, she said.

Tenants at Palmer Court are required to put 30% of their income toward rent, no matter how much they make, with vouchers covering the remainder of the rent, Flynn said.

“We have many people that start at zero income,” she said.

Matthew Minkevitch, executive director of The Road Home, said Palmer Court’s residents have encouraged him with their examples of courage and resilience.

"I want you to know how inspiring you are. For the adversity that you've overcome and how gracefully you've done so," Minkevitch said.

Anna Hale, another 10-year resident of Palmer Court, said she arrived at the community with her two sons after a period of transient living and homelessness. Originally from West Virginia, she moved to Utah for a medical procedure and ended up staying, making ends meet by working at a fast food restaurant.

She said her life was turned upside down when Wendy’s fired her after her managers wrongfully blamed her for another employee’s misconduct. She lost her apartment and moved to Boise, Idaho, for a while in search of opportunity. She imagines she would’ve still been drifting if she hadn’t found a home at Palmer Court and a job washing and folding laundry from The Road Home’s downtown shelter.

She and her sons have steadied their lives over the past 10 years and now are planning on moving on from Palmer Court, Hale, 49, said.

“I thank God every day for my blessings, and I say thank you for guiding us here. Because if it weren’t for here, we’d still be in Boise, Idaho, looking for a job,” she said.