I like to think of myself as being open minded...it's much nicer than the alternative.
But my mind was blown open on Thursday night. I had volunteered to help out at The Road Home. This is the homeless shelter for Utah. There is one location in downtown, that ironically enough is directly south of the Gateway Mall, and for the winter when the need for housing is greater, they open up their overflow location in Midvale.
I had been to the Road Home downtown. The people that run it are amazing. At that location there are individual dorm-style rooms for families. Small, but at least it's some privacy. As with the Midvale location, the families are not allowed in the shelter until after dinner time. They are supposed to be out pounding the pavement during the day, looking for a job. Which sounds nice if you are worried that these people might be taking advantage of the system. But when you think of the reality of life- kids that get sick, newborn babies, the bone-chilling, windy cold of the winter days- then the logic of it doesn't sound quite as nice.
But these families are downtown. There are some services that they could try to connect with. The Downtown Library serves as almost a makeshift day shelter often times for some of these families. There are public bathrooms at the Gateway Food court. All they have to do is try not to notice the stares of "regular" customers like me, as they walk with their backpacks to the bathroom.
So there you go, I was informed. Utah's homeless situation was bad, but not bleak. I mean, it's not Vegas or San Diego where if you're stuck outside during the winter, you don't have to worry about freezing to death. But at least it's not Mississippi, where over 20% of that state lives below the poverty level. That's the good thing about being a human, you can always rationalize that someones got it worse, to make yourself feel better.
So, on Thursday night, I had volunteered to help with a Mormon Stories group activity, where we were going to do activities with the kids at the overflow shelter in Midvale. There was a storm on Thursday night, and an accident right before the 1-80 on ramp. I was debating whether or not I should turn around as I sat in a parking lot of traffic at 6:50 PM in front of the Olive Garden on 13th South. I had a map that I'd printed out, as I was about as familiar with Midvale as I am with the surface of the moon.
I'm too cheap (lazy) to get the app on my phone that gives me turn by turn driving directions, so instead I was just hoping that the map was really correct. I got on the freeway and after a while got off at the 7200 South freeway exit. I made a right hand turn and then made an immediate turn on to 700 West at the light. The road curved around a bit and the street signs were hard to make out, especially with the snow.
I got a little lost, but finally found a crooked rusted street sign that said it was 9th Avenue. I turned east at this sign. I thought that I must be lost again because this road looked like an old service road for the railway. I cautiously went over not one, but two sets of railroad tracks. I passed a railway service station on my right with one old pick up truck parked outside. I could see the freeway ahead of me, and thought that at this rate, I was just going to reach a dead end of the tall weeds that grow right up next to 1-15. The road was in bad shape- potholes, and parts of it unpaved. I was just about to turn around, as the junk yard and scrap heap that was ahead of me was proof that there was no sign of life out in this neck of the woods, nor should there be, when to my left I spotted a sign that said Dead End and then another sign that read The Road Home.
It was an old white warehouse. Seriously. I knew that the overflow shelter was in an old warehouse, but I'd just assumed that they'd done something cosmetic to hide that fact. Kind of like the urban lofts they sell in downtown...where it used to be a pillow factory or a tire warehouse, but now look at the exposed brick and the soaring ceilings, and those great stainless steel appliances...not here.
I am trying to think of what to compare it to. If you've ever been to a DI (an old one) it was kind of like that. I drove through the tall metal gate, past what used to be a loading area with big metal doors that were closed. There were minivans, and station wagons, and family cars that lined the outside of the place, bumper to bumper. I drove to the north of the building, and parked next to a bunch of storage pods.
The front door was much less welcoming than a DI front door. I would say it was more like entering a grocery store through the back, where you feel like you are trespassing in to an area that is reserved for those that work there. The door was painted white steel, cold and dirty. There was a small sign that let me know that I was in the right place. I walked up a small set of stairs and suddenly remembered the trailers that we used to have at my elementary school, Windsor, where we had our math classes at, and the Spanish immersion kids did their stuff in.
Our elementary school trailers were always so plain on the outside, as if keeping it so showed our faith in the fact that it was only to be temporary. Because if you invested in it at all, it was as if to say that the thing was here to stay, and would never be replaced by the new school wing that was so desperately needed for all of us Orem kids.
Walking through that door, I heard the low rumble of noise. It was muffled, but it was like the hallway before you round the corner to see a movie theatre auditorium filled to capacity. Once I was through the check-in area the warehouse opened up to one giant room, the size of an LDS church gym. But this room didn't have nice wood floors, or carpeted room dividers, or stained glass. This big room was filled, wall to wall, with full size mattresses.
It was like the TV reports of the Super dome after Hurricane Katrina. I tried not to look as shocked as I felt as I followed the Volunteer Coordinator past the "mattress city" to the small room where they were doing the activity for kids. As I walked past, I noticed that each mattress was like a snapshot of the people that inhabited it. All of the family's stuff was folded or piled on or around their mattress, with yellow tape lines on the floor, designating the one foot that separated one family from another with their "private" space.
Some families beds were neat and tidy, others had clothing and nick knacks piled so high I wondered how anyone got in to the bed at night. As I walked down the long stretch of beds, I tried to imagine how many mattresses (families) there were in all. Turns out there were 70. Seventy families living in that warehouse. Some mothers laid on their beds with their newborns, as the babies rolled on to their sides and cooed. Toddlers walked by and looked up curiously at me.
Some looked like you would expect a "homeless kid" to look- dirty faced, snot dried under their noses. With their unkempt outfits, socks instead of shoes, coughing in to their little hands. But most looked like my kids. They were Dalton's age, and Shelby's age, and Garrett's age, and every age in between. They were bright eyed, their hair neatly combed, with their favorite t-shirts on, eager to see what the next day held for them. I saw teenagers kidding around with each other.
The parents looked like me, and my neighbors and my friends. But most seemed sad. Some sat on their mattress, staring off in to space. Possibly wondering what they were going to do in a month when this shelter closed it's doors. It was shocking...humbling.
Once I was in the back room, I saw 40-50 more kids. How was this possible? How are this many people "housed" in this space? It felt like the wind had been knocked out of me, taking in the scene. The scene of forced happiness. The scene of 15 adults leading different activities, trying to pretend that they didn't want to swoop in and rescue every one of these beautiful kids, and their families...take them home to their warm houses with their closed doors and hot baths.
The adults were glorious...they faked it well. At one area the adults were helping the kids with cookie decorating, where 10 kids at a time spread frosting and sprinkles on sugar cookies, until the cookies looked more like brightly colored glimmering towers. As I walked in, a blond haired, glassy eyed, five year old boy precariously carried his cookie past me, and dropped it on the cold cement floor. I picked it up for him, and asked him what he wanted to do. Perhaps fearing that there were no extras he chose to put it back on his plate and keep it.
In the corner, several adults were reading books to children of all ages. They struggled to keep the attention of their audience, as the kids were licking their lips awaiting their turn at the cookie decorating station. At one table, the kids had markers, stamps, and little booklets, where they were encouraged to journal, and tell their stories. The last area had a small stereo and a darling man and woman showing the kids how to do a dance. Unfortunately, with the noise in the room, the instructions of the music were hard to hear. The 15 boys and a few girls were excited to learn dance moves, and feel that they were doing something "cool".
I ended up calling out the moves so that the kids knew whether they needed to hop on their left foot, or slide to the right. With separate rooms, it would have been much easier, so as to really have the kids full attention, but in this space, the adults made it work as best they could. I had grabbed a board game at the last minute before I'd left my house. After our dance was over, while we were waiting for the other kids to finish at their stations, one of the leaders of the group asked if I would do the game I brought with the kids.
The kids had to guess what card they had pulled, by asking yes and no questions to guess their identities. In this back room there was a computer with Internet, and one of the kids was like a moth to the flame, returning over and over to try to surf the net. I totally sympathized with him. How nice would it be to escape this place, if only in a virtual way. But he was continuously told that he had to get off the computer, as if he could find anything more disturbing online than he faced with his current living situation.
The game continued, and kids came up to me wanting to be a part of it. One little Hispanic guy was intent on guessing his card. Some of the kids gave up, some peeked and then called out the answer so that they impressed the other kids. But this little guy hung in there. His card was a shark. He knew he was big, lived in the ocean, had sharp teeth, and that people were scared of him. Some kids were tempted to tell him what his card was that was in the headband on his forehead, but he wouldn't listen. Finally he got it. And then he wanted to do it all night. Like, if he could solve that puzzle, the sky was the limit...he could solve anything.
At the end of the hour, I told the kids I would leave the game with them at the shelter so they could play it the next day. He said that he would carry it up to the front desk. But when I told the volunteer coordinator, she told him to hand it over. Like she knew that the temptation to have this game to himself would be too great in this shared living space, where there was no privacy, and so little was actually yours to keep.
I regretted asking her. What harm would it have done to have given him that gift. To have given him something that was his to keep? His mother had looked on while he was playing the game with me, and as I looked at her observing her son, smiling at him and proud of his ability to guess the clues, I thought, "She does not deserve to be in here." None of them did.
The hour passed quickly, and then it was time to go. I helped bring the books back to the office area and talked with one of the employees. I said, "It's shocking that this exists in this Christian state." I must have sounded jaded because the woman told me that the LDS church had written a $300,000 check to keep the place open during the winter. That made me feel a bit better about how our society cares for these families, though the front page news that day had been about the $5 billion dollar price tag ($1.5 billion more than the new World Trade Towers) of the City Creek shopping area.
It was snowing when I walked to my car. I allowed myself to cry for 15 seconds as I rounded the corner that displayed the Dead End sign. And then I stopped. Because what good does it do to just feel sad? The employee that I spoke with said that after April these people would be sleeping in the hallway of the downtown location, because they were only funded to keep the overflow warehouse space open until April. So it does get worse.
If you want to donate to The Road Home, go here: http://www.theroadhome.org/
If we all gave 1% of our income, for just one year in our lifetime, we could end homelessness in Utah.