I’ve been thinking a lot about John since I met him last Thursday. His friend Cowboy likes to needle him about their situation.
“There’s nothing dignified about dying on a street that smells like piss,” Cowboy was saying with a smile.
John laughed politely and then got very serious.
“I’m not dying on the street," he said. "This is temporary. This is only temporary.”
John and Cowboy were sitting in my office. My office has no cubicle walls, no door, no secretary. It’s really just a small card table and three folding chairs in front of a “Road Closed” sign propped up against a fence.
Beyond the fence was Rio Grande Street, where the majority of homeless service providers in Salt Lake City run their facilities. John likes to call it the DMZ, a reference to the demilitarized zone between South Korea and North Korea.
It’s easy to see the comparison, the fence is covered in black cloth, there is a controlled-entry gate and, beyond that gate, civil liberties are being put to the test. I’m running for Salt Lake City Council to represent this area, and if I win, the people living on the street here would be my constituents.
John has been an alcoholic for the last 18 years, though he’s been clean for two. He says he’s trying to enjoy his retirement now. He and Cowboy argue like old friends. Cowboy insists they’ll both die on the street and no one will remember them. John insists he’s only homeless temporarily, and someday he’ll die with dignity.
Over the course of five hours, I spoke with more than 25 people experiencing homelessness in downtown Salt Lake. I met Brad, whose wife died while he was in nursing school and he turned to heroin to ease the pain. I met Will, a Medicaid recipient who just met with a case manager for housing. I met Rocky and Phil, who both point out that there’s only one phone available for more than 1,000 people receiving services on Rio Grande Street. I met Melissa, who just had a job interview, and wishes more people would donate shoes because it’s hard to find a pair in the right size.
There’s a lot for me to think about, and a lot of policy that we can pull from these conversations. Transportation to good-paying jobs is a problem the city can solve. One phone for 1,000 people is a problem the city can solve. Two bathrooms within two blocks is a problem the city can solve. Lack of storage for personal belongings is a problem the city can solve.
Rio Grande is a problem the city can solve.
I care about this community, which is why I served for the last six years as chair of the Central City Neighborhood Council, representing residents and business owners right here in District 4. It’s why I served for four years on the Salt Lake City Human Rights Commission, listening to the concerns of marginalized communities and trying to elevate those voices to the people in power. It’s why I’m running for Salt Lake City Council District 4.
It’s why my office will always be open, and why I’ll keep thinking about John. I believe he can escape homelessness, and he deserves to be treated with dignity.
Michael Iverson is a candidate for the District 4 seat on the Salt Lake City Council.