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Wind and cold temperatures 'absolutely brutal' for Utah's homeless

Strong easterly winds across the Wasatch Front have caused snow to drift and temperatures to drop to single digits or below zero. As a result, more homeless families and individuals are taking refuge wherever they can.
Strong easterly winds across the Wasatch Front have caused snow to drift and temperatures to drop to single digits or below zero. As a result, more homeless families and individuals are taking refuge wherever they can.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Chad Skinner prefers streets over shelters, having been homeless for three consecutive years in places such as Southern California and Mississippi.

But coming to Salt Lake City has presented a new set of challenges.

"I like being outside, but it's cold here," Skinner said Tuesday. "I've been here almost a month now, and I've stayed in the shelter for three nights. (Monday) night, I appreciated it because it was really cold. I needed to stay inside, and I'll probably stay inside (Tuesday night)."

Strong easterly winds across the Wasatch Front have caused snow to drift and temperatures to drop to single digits or below zero. As a result, more homeless families and individuals like Skinner are taking refuge wherever they can.

Matt Minkevitch, executive director of The Road Home in Salt Lake City, said the three shelters he works with will likely see about 1,100 patrons during the coldest months of the winter, more than 200 of whom are children and families.

"This is happening across northern Utah," Minkevitch said. "This is brutal. These winds and temperatures, it's absolutely brutal."

Volunteers with The Road Home, Volunteers of America and Fourth Street Clinic have boosted efforts to make room inside for more patrons, as well as to distribute coats, pants, socks, hats, gloves, hand warmers and other provisions.

Volunteers of America sends out five teams to distribute needed goods to homeless people in areas throughout the Salt Lake Valley, including downtown, the Jordan River, the foothill areas and the Salt Lake City Main Library, according to spokeswoman DeAnn Zebeelean.

The organization provides goods to meet the immediate needs of homeless people as well as resources to obtain documents necessary to gain employment, education and housing. The group serves between 280 and 350 people on average each month, she said.

"It's rough on these individuals that are without a home today," Zebeelean said Tuesday. "Today is a day where a lot of people will seek emergency shelter. Even the ones that maybe don't typically go on a regular basis, they'll go today. It's just so windy and cold. The shelters will be really full this evening."

The Salt Lake City Mission provides day services and limited sleeping space for homeless people in the area. A shuttle is sent to The Road Home to bring patrons to the mission to give them an alternative place to be during the day, providing meals, clothing and religious classes, according to the mission's assistant executive director Joe Vazquez.

"It's pretty normal for us to be at capacity," Vazquez said, adding that the shelter usually sees up to 50 patrons each day during the winter. "When the weather gets cold, we get pretty full."

Minkevitch said clothing donations have increased over the past month, and because shelter volunteers distribute them as quickly as possible, it's difficult to quantify just how many items are given out.

"Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of items," he said. "We're passing out socks in terms of thousands of pairs."

The weather also complicates the process of keeping shelters clean while at the same time giving patrons shelter from the cold. Normally, The Road Home shuts down the men's dormitory for several hours each day for cleaning, but staff members try to cover only the bare essentials to let them back in as quickly as possible, Minkevitch said. Many patrons also share blankets during cold months, which can be hygienically unsafe.

"We have to change things up a bit in order to provide the best possible accommodation that we can," he said. "We're making sure we're being as hygienic as possible, but we're battling the elements, so our turnaround time has to be even quicker than it normally is."

Winter is especially hard for homeless individuals with pets. While most shelters allow service pets inside, pets can be difficult to accommodate in addition to providing food and clean space for people.

Michele Alvarez has relied heavily on her service dog since she was in a car accident in 2009. In the crash, she lost senses on the left side of her body, including vision, hearing and the use of her arm. Her dog alerts her when someone is approaching from the left side and when she is having a seizure and needs to lay down.

"He's my little hero," Alvarez said.

Alvarez is allowed to have her dog stay with her while living at The Road Home. But finding more permanent housing is doubly challenging as a homeless person who depends on the help of a dog.

"It's tough," Alvarez said. "You have to make hard decisions and sacrifices."

Winds were expected to subside and temperatures rise gradually throughout the week, bringing some relief to those outside across the Wasatch Front. High temperatures were forecasted in the 20s and 30s, with lows in the teens, according to KSL meteorologist Dan Guthrie.

Contributing: Nkoyo Iyamba

Email: mjacobsen@deseretnews.com, Twitter: MorganEJacobsen