Formerly homeless couple adjust to challenges, opportunities of their new life indoors

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ron and Katherine Barrett at their apartment in Salt Lake City on Monday, August 26, 2019.

During the first few weeks Ron and Katherine Barrett spent in their new apartment on 300 East in downtown Salt Lake City, they slept with a canopy over their bed.

Katherine, once used to law enforcement officers waking her multiple times each night as the pair sought refuge under a camping tent in the city, would now wake up on her own, disoriented. The soft folds of cloth hanging overhead helped simulate an old sense of security when she opened her eyes.

“It’s really funny what you get used to,” she said with a laugh during a recent interview at her home. “It’s insane, but it helped us get along better.”

The formerly homeless pair has now had a roof overhead for more than six months, thanks to a federal housing voucher that provides rental assistance to people chronically living on the streets. The Barretts’ mid-February move came shortly after The Salt Lake Tribune published a story detailing their challenges finding a Salt Lake City apartment that met the location and price restrictions of the voucher and a landlord who would take them with an eviction in their past.

The studio apartment they now call home is probably no more than 500 square feet, with a total cost of around $946 a month including utilities, the couple said. Much of their furniture was either donated or purchased through a voucher from Deseret Industries, a Utah-based thrift store.

They’ve had more than one problem with their plumbing and wish for central air conditioning on hot summer days. “But it beats a tent, let me tell you,” said Ron, gesturing around the apartment the couple share with new tabby cat Sandy.

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Katherine Barrett plays with a kitten at her apartment in Salt Lake City on Monday, August 26, 2019.

Bernie Hart, who runs a tai chi program at Pioneer Park and the downtown Salt Lake City Library that’s made up largely of people experiencing homelessness, has known the Barretts since their days on the streets and said he’s seen big changes, particularly in Katherine since they got into housing.

“What I’ve noticed physically through all that is Katherine is dressed well all the time,” he said with a laugh, noting that the two have kept tai chi as part of their morning routine. “She’s what we call the fashion queen, and it’s a big difference. She’s taking advantage of being in housing in those kinds of ways, and she seems to be happier when she’s around us.”

The Barretts, who just celebrated their 30th anniversary, began to struggle as their medical bills from Ron’s cancer and Katherine’s multiple sclerosis started to stack up around the time the country was tumbling into the Great Recession from 2007 to 2009. They were in and out of motels starting around 2008 and began living on the streets in early 2017.

Now that they’re in housing, the Barretts said they’ve been able to begin prioritizing issues that go beyond the immediate needs they once prioritized on the streets: food, shelter and sleep.

First up has been taking care of their 15 citations apiece for camping on public grounds, which is prohibited under Salt Lake City code. The tickets are a class B misdemeanor and could each carry a penalty of up to $1,000 and six months in jail, though the average recommended fine for camping citations is $680, not including surcharges — still a hefty fine for someone on the streets.

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) Katherine and Ronald Barrett Jr. talk about being homeless and the difficultly of trying to find a place to sleep, on the grounds of the Salt Lake City Main Library, April 16, 2018. The couple has now been in housing for several months, thanks to a federal voucher.

Ron said he felt like a major burden was lifted from his shoulders when his cases were dismissed July 31, after the judge said the city had not met its burden of proof to establish that he was camping on public property, according to audio of the hearing obtained through an open records request.

“I was crying” when the judge handed down the ruling, Ron said. “I cried. I did. I couldn’t believe that.”

Katherine, on the other hand, is still anxiously awaiting resolution of several citations so she can find a job — hopefully as a caseworker for people experiencing homelessness, she said.

Four of her citations have been dismissed, court records show. She was found guilty on three and sentenced to probation and 15 hours of community service for each in lieu of a fine. The rest are awaiting the results of a bench trial scheduled for mid-November.

“It’s making me a nervous wreck having to go to court,” she said. “I’m really just trying to get on with my life. I really think I can be productive and bring some good to the community.”

The couple are already working to give back to those still on the streets through volunteer work with a community advisory board made up of current and former people experiencing homelessness at Fourth Street Clinic, which provides health care and support services for the community.

And the Barretts said they feel positive about the direction services are moving in Salt Lake County as part of a transition to three smaller resource centers for people experiencing homelessness, the last of which is scheduled to open later this fall with the closure of The Road Home downtown shelter. Under the plan, each center will furnish a full suite of services, including breakfast, lunch and dinner; basic health care; job assistance; and housing assessments.

“There’s a lot of people out there that need help, just a little bit of help to get into the right place,” Katherine said. “I think they’re working towards that.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ron Barrett, 55, and his wife Katherine Barrett, 54, who are homeless try to stay warm in their tent from the meager heat from a ceramic pot filled with candle wax. Their cold hands are blacken by the soot rising from the burning candle on a night that temperatures dropped to 12 degrees in Salt Lake City. "It's crazy, you gotta be able to have a sense of humor," said Ron Barrett, 55, of the life circumstances that resulted in life on the streets for he and Katherine since 2017. The Barretts are trying to find housing through a Shelter Plus Care housing voucher through the Salt Lake City Housing Authority. The couple says they refuse to stay in the state's largest homeless shelter, The Road Home on Rio Grande Street, because of past threats of violence from other residents.

Getting their court cases in order and planting roots in the community are just a few of the benefits of finally having an apartment, the two said. They’re also able to cook healthier food — Katherine jokingly laments the four pounds she’s gained so far, though she said her favorite part of their new apartment is the chance to host monthly dinners with their three children — and to focus on their mental health.

That’s been a major priority for Ron, who said he’s seeing a therapist multiple times a month to deal with the trauma of his past before seeking steady work.

“[My therapist] said, ‘Some people have an apartment or a room or two that needs to be worked on’ and she said, ‘You have a house,’” he recounted. “I was like, OK. I’m going to work through that first.”

As homeless services in Salt Lake County move toward a housing-first model, Hart said it’s important to couple that with increased access to mental health services to address the underlying circumstances that put someone on the streets.

“I really think too much is made out of the housing itself as being the biggest piece of the whole thing because everybody who’s been on the street and gone through what Katherine and Ron have for an extended period of time, there’s a lot of emotional-based trauma,” he said. “Everybody on the street is dealing with some degree of post-traumatic stress disorder … and just putting people in housing doesn’t address those needs.”

It’s true that having a place to sleep hasn’t immediately solved all their problems, the Barretts said. Both have been grappling with feelings of claustrophobia they never experienced when they lived outside, and they’ve struggled at times to maintain their connections while setting boundaries with friends who are still experiencing homelessness.

“I’ll say ‘Yeah, I’ll watch your stuff for the day, but I’m not taking it more than a day because it will get mixed up in my stuff,’” Katherine said. “I’ll let them take a shower if they want, but that’s as far as we can go. You kind of learn what you can do.”

As they navigate the ins and outs of their new lives, the Barretts agreed that they never want to live on the streets again. But they say they’re moving forward without regrets and with plenty of lessons learned.

“Going through this is a learning experience on its own, so there are some things in life that I didn’t realize or understand from the start,” Ron said. “I’ve gotten to meet a lot of people and we’ve changed some minds — and some minds have changed us. It’s been a good experience. I can’t tell you it’s been horrible.”

Editor’s note • Tribune photo editor Jeremy Harmon assists in Bernie Hart’s tai chi program.