The large brick building had a concrete apron that ended at a ramp that sloped up to the steel entry door. Beyond the door were stairs that led to the men’s lobby. I walked up the stairs feeling as dejected and depressed as I had ever been. I was homeless, and all I had now was the shelter.
Or so I thought.
The lobby of The Road Home shelter was empty, and a sign on the desk said simply; “Out of Beds.”
“What do you mean you’re out of beds?” I said, “Where do I go?”
The woman at the desk looked at me like I was slow. “You go to the overflow!”
After I learned where the overflow was, I carried my two small backpacks back down the stairs and went to the St. Vincent center, a kitchen and dining room across the street. I was given a small mat, a thin blanket and told to pick a spot on the floor.
At 6 a.m. we were kicked out into the cold. I walked back around the block to see if my luck had improved any. This time I was allowed in.
There was one bathroom. For over 500 men. The single shower room had four poles with spouts on them. Two worked. There were zero hand dryers. I used to joke that staying clean in the shelter was like trying to stay dry in a pool.
I learned that toilet paper was precious. It was hoarded by everyone. I also learned to keep an empty Gatorade bottle. The single bathroom was closed and locked for at least 3 hours a day for cleaning. These closures happened shortly after everyone got up and just before lights-out. Men would sometimes wet themselves or worse, and some of the mentally deficient would just walk around soiled. Empty plastic bottles were a common target of theft, and I guarded mine carefully.
Almost everybody was sick, the most common ailment being something called “shelter hack,” a pervasive cough. Everybody had it to some degree, even the staff. I strongly suspect that the air filters weren’t being changed, and in a poorly patrolled building with hundreds of smokers, many smoked inside when it was cold. After nine months, I contracted severe COPD despite being a non-smoker.
The worst thing was the sadness. It was palpable, and it was hard when people died. One morning in January a man bled out right in front of me in the hallway. It was one of the worst experiences in my life. He just started coughing up blood, and then blood poured out of his mouth and nose, pooling on the floor in front of me. When the medics arrived, he was unresponsive. They just carted him out like so much refuse, leaving his coat behind as if they knew that he would no longer be needing it.
One morning there was a syringe on the floor beside a man who had clearly not been breathing for some time. Like with the bleeding man, the medics just showed up and carried him away. Mornings like that were hard on me, and 2019 was a very, very hard winter.
Most of the staff, to their great credit, were shining examples of altruism. They breathed the same poison air and weathered the same emotional storms that we did. They were fighting to accomplish so much with so little. I read the budgets that were proposed online and witnessed how politicians who were totally ignorant of the situation eviscerated them.
So, now the big machines are tearing down the old shelter, turning those sorrowful memories to dust. It should be a happy occasion. But it isn’t. the new facilities are beautiful, but so many were left out in the cold. The operators of the new facilities needed $40 million to be successful in their mission to reduce homelessness, but they got less than half of that.
In a state with a budgetary surplus of $682 million, it could have been done right, more supportive housing at least. For only a fraction of that sum, Utah could have been a shining example of success.
I just can’t help wondering if Utah’s homeless problem will ever seriously be addressed by a Legislature rife with landlords and developers.
Kip Yost is a formerly homeless person now living with his wife in an apartment in Salt Lake City.