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Acts of compassion lifted woman from homelessness

SALT LAKE CITY — At the depths of her despair, Denise Vukas spent three years living along the Jordan River.

"I was the only girl on the river. I put myself in some risky situations," she said.

Vukas was an alcoholic, and the fallout of her addiction — job loss, homelessness, declining health — had strained her relationship with her daughter to the point that she told Vukas to quit calling.

"She said, 'Mom, I can't talk to you anymore. I can't listen to you. I can't do anything for you. I've done all I can,'" said Vukas, speaking at Utah's 10th annual Homeless Summit on Thursday.

Cut off from family, Vukas said she was "lost for a year. The river took me over."

But it was on the river that she met a "guardian angel," Ed Snoddy, a longtime homeless outreach volunteer with Volunteers of America.

Snoddy brought Vukas food, offered her a spot in VOA's detox center and always left her with an encouraging word.

"It wasn't his words that touched me. It was the compassion in his eyes," she said.

Vukas, who said she has been sober for two years, has a job and a home, is one person among a growing number of Utahns once considered chronically homeless who live in permanent supportive housing.

Chronic homelessness in Utah dropped by 9.5 percent in the past year, and 74 percent since 2005, according to the state's Comprehensive Report on Homelessness released Thursday.

People are considered chronically homeless if they have a disabling condition and they have been homeless for at least one year continually or four times in three years.

Gordon Walker, director of the state Division of Housing and Community Development, said the downward trend means Utah is on track to meet its 10-year goal of ending chronic homelessness because of the targeted, collaborative efforts of service providers and government agencies. This the ninth year of that effort.

"We're hearing about individuals' lives coming full circle, where they were literally down and out by any measure of their self worth to where they're properly housed, where they've gone back into employment and found relationships again, which is what life really is," Walker said.

The chronic homeless are one segment of the homeless population, and meeting the 10-year goal will not mean an end to homelessness in general, he said.

Most people experience homelessness on a temporary basis, but they, too, benefit from the downturn in chronic homelessness because the state's Housing First initiative frees up space in emergency shelters.

The report said placing people in permanent supportive housing also reduces the use of jails and emergency rooms.

"Ending homelessness for the most vulnerable improves their safety and quality of life," the report said.

Vukas is textbook example, Walker said.

"As long as we have hope, as long we don't give up, someone will pop up," he said. "There will be another Denise up there (addressing us) next year."

Vukas said a number of guardian angels guided her out of homelessness and into recovery. But it wasn't a smooth journey.

Clinicians at Fourth Street Clinic told her if she didn't quit drinking and smoking, she was going to die.

"At that time, it went in one ear and out the other," she said.

There were relapses and a lengthy hospitalization for kidney failure, a gallbladder infection, malnutrition and jaundice.

"I was not expected to live," she said.

A caseworker called Vukas' daughter, and she came to her mother's bedside, telling the worker, "This is a call I had been waiting for."

Vukas' daughter, her boyfriend Tony, whom she had met while living on the river, and a number of homeless advocates kept a constant watch at her bedside.

When she was released from the hospital, Vukas began the hard work of substance abuse treatment.

Even though she had been in the fog of addiction while she was homeless, the kindness of caseworkers, volunteers, housing specialists and health care providers helped her believe she was a person of worth, she said.

At her lowest points, Vukas would call Snoddy and he'd meet her along the river, food and supplies in tow. She recalled the time he brought her a hot Thanksgiving meal.

"If he believed in me and helped me, I must be somebody," she said.

Through a work program managed by Valley Mental Health, Vukas works at Grace Mary Manor, a Salt Lake County Housing Authority project that provides permanent supportive housing for 84 chronically homeless individuals with disabling conditions. On occasion, she meets people much like her former self, men and women who are struggling with addiction.

"I had to see what I had been and what I never want to be again," she said.

Recently, Vukas was asked to help run a support group for people who have recently moved into permanent supportive housing.

"It's my turn to pay it forward," she said.