Meet the father-son duo out to combat homelessness with empathy and connection

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ten-year-old Chase Hansen and his father John walk with Viliami Taufalele, right, after approaching him in downtown Salt Lake City and offer to buy him a meal in exchange for a little conversation on Monday, Dec. 16, 2019. Chase started an organization at the age of 6 called Project Empathy. The two of them spend time with people experiencing homelessness in an effort to connect with people on a personal level.

Christmas music plays overhead on a recent late December afternoon as a 10-year-old boy looks intently at the stranger sitting next to him in a Salt Lake City Subway sandwich shop.

“What are your main hobbies when you’re just chilling around?” the boy asks.

“Shooting pool, shooting darts, watching football,” replies Viliami Taufalele, 49, as he takes a bite of his sandwich. But his favorite team, the Oakland Raiders, “ain’t doing so good,” he adds with a laugh.

Taufalele, who has been homeless for 20 years, is one of more than 130 people experiencing homelessness whom Chase Hansen and his father, John, have interviewed over the last four years as part of their work to build connections with the unsheltered community.

The concept began as a community engagement project and has since transformed into a low-profit limited liability company called Project Empathy, which emphasizes the role community members can have in uplifting people experiencing homelessness by giving them a space to be seen and to tell their stories.

“I just found out that by just talking to someone, like, it can really lighten up somebody’s day and make them feel awesome and that’s what I’m trying to do,” Chase explains to Taufalele.

“You’ve got a good kid,” Taufalele says, turning to John. “That’s a big part of life is listening.”

Chase first became aware of the homeless population while spending time at the Gateway Mall in 2013, when he was 4 years old. The father-son duo began passing out food at nearby Pioneer Park a few years later but found that approach didn’t have the effect they wanted.

That’s when they began asking people on the streets to join them for a sit-down meal to share their stories, wants and needs in more “deliberate and intentional conversations,” John said in a recent interview with The Salt Lake Tribune.

Some of these sit-down meals have turned into stronger connections, and the pair has helped several homeless people with everything from transportation to and from their appointments to their applications for housing and Social Security.

One of the early people they worked with was Justin Ward, who John approached at a Starbucks downtown a few years ago when he was staying at The Road Home’s now-closed downtown emergency shelter.

Ward was eventually placed into housing and credits the Hansens with helping him through the difficult process of moving off the streets.

“I suffer from depression and anxiety so [John] was, for me, a very integral part or I guess more an anchor for me during those times when it would become very stressful, where it would raise my anxiety and stuff,” Ward said. “It was really great to have a friend and someone who was there to be encouraging.”

Ward often felt overlooked while he was homeless, he said, and receiving a little kindness went a long way.

Jessie Campbell, who works alongside Chase and Josh to address homelessness through building connections, said he also felt “forgotten” by society when he was living on the streets intermittently over a period of 15 years.

“You will visually watch people turn their head the opposite direction of you so there’s no eye contact,” he said. “People are so uncomfortable to see sorrow or to see people hurt or they don’t know how to serve. They don’t know how to give back; they don’t know how to make a change.”

But when he was homeless, Campbell said, the answers to those questions were easier than some might think. He longed for even small acknowledgments — like a look in the eye or a hug — that would help him feel less alone.

Campbell now runs a small organization called Life on the Line, where he works to foster meaningful connections between people experiencing homelessness and the broader community through fishing expeditions across the state.

Those relationships often take time to build, he said. But they come easier for Chase, who can connect with people in a way he and John can’t.

“A child who is innocent comes up and asks innocent questions, your guard goes down,” Campbell explained. “He’s such an impactful little child that he really is able to get through some of these walls that us grown men can’t do. It takes us a little bit longer.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Chase Hansen at the Homeless Persons’ Memorial Candlelight Vigil in Salt Lake City's Pioneer Park on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019.

When they sit down with someone who’s experiencing homelessness, Chase said he tries not to ask the “hard questions,” as his dad calls them. Those are things like: “Do you use drugs? How long have you been using them? How long have you been homeless?”

Instead, his queries are meant to “reveal the other human across from you,” John said.

“You just open yourself up,” Chase added. “You kind of just express yourself and you don’t beat them down. And so like any normal person, it’s just talking to a person, like, let’s say you’re in a town home and they’re in an apartment.”

While the Hansens spent the first few years of their project learning the best ways to approach people and open them up, John said they have since started to focus on ways to involve the community in their work.

They’ve trained several church and volunteer groups as well as corporate teams on their methods and have been meeting recently with local government leaders around the county to share their work and generate ideas for how they could grow their efforts.

Chase spoke most recently before the Salt Lake County Council, which had to place a chair in front of the microphone so he could reach it. He took the opportunity to explain his work and asked the council for three things: “Your time, your focus and your listening” in order to address homelessness.

In November, the Hansens also met with elected leaders in South Salt Lake, which is home to the newest and largest of three homeless resource centers that replaced the 1,100-capacity shelter, operated by The Road Home, that closed.

“South Salt Lake has 300 brand new residents of their city and they don’t know who those people are,” John said. “And so we’re interested and curious how we remove bias, create experiences where those neighbors are invited to share who they are and maybe what their needs are.”

City Councilman Shane Siwik said he was impressed with the Hansens and is excited to see what comes out of the city’s early conversations with the pair. One idea they have is to partner with restaurants to help provide free meals for volunteers involved in Project Empathy or to create mentoring or training programs.

“Those guys are really a dynamic duo who have got a lot of big ideas,” Siwik said. “I’ve had the opportunity to sit down and plan some things out with them, but they’re really taking the lead on it.”

Moving into 2020, Chase said his goals are to help get eight people off the streets, to train more people on the principles behind Project Empathy and to continue listening to people like Taufalele, who he says have a lot to teach him and the rest of the community.

“Everybody, no matter how famous they are like [basketball star] Donovan Mitchell, or how poor they are, like a homeless person, we’re all equal,” he said. “We’re all in this together. We’re all brothers and we all need to care for each other. And that’s Project Empathy.”