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Veteran homeless outreach worker's mantra: 'We keep coming back'

SALT LAKE CITY — The first time Joe Ortega met Ed Snoddy was across the reception desk of the detox center at Volunteers of America-Utah.

Snoddy hadn't been on the job long, but he wanted Ortega to consider the possibility of getting sober and getting on with his life.

"He’s the one years ago that got the ball rolling. He put that little seed in my head that it would be all right to get sober," Ortega said.

He did, but it took 20 years for that to happen.

For two decades, Ortega lived on the streets of Salt Lake City, often sleeping under a bridge in Sugar House. He panhandled and collected aluminum cans for money to buy vodka, beer and later Spice.

Snoddy, who in February will mark 22 years as a medical outreach worker for VOA-Utah, was a constant presence in Ortega's life for much of that time, slowly but methodically winning his trust and convincing him he needed to come into housing.

For the past year and a half, Ortega has lived at Grace Mary Manor, a permanent supportive housing complex for people who have been chronically homeless and have a disability. He wakes up each day in a snug studio apartment where he is learning to enjoy simple pleasures, such as doing jigsaw puzzles and cooking.

"My whole outlook is just different. I just enjoy being in my room and cooking my stuff. I love cooking my beans, man. I love my beans and my tortillas and my chili," he said.

Best of all, he's reconnected with family.

"He (Snoddy) just kept offering encouragement, telling me that life was going to change for me. It was going to be a change. I’d have to stick with it. It was going to be a change. It was going to be a change for the better," he said.

Learning the hard way

The affable Snoddy, who earlier in his professional life sold real estate, is a natural salesman.

But instead of talking Ortega into buying a house, he convinced him to take steps that would save, enrich and extend his life.

Snoddy, who is in recovery from addiction to alcohol and cocaine, earned his street cred and know-how the hard way.

"A lot of people ask, ‘How did you get in this business?' I say, ‘Well I did my undergraduate work at the Downunder Bar in Park City, and I did my graduate work at 25th Street in Ogden. You know, it was experience.'

"Along the way I had a thirst for learning about addiction and about mental health disorders. You listen to people. You listen to the people that we work with. There’s so much that comes back to me from their story. You know where the journey began. And then you know it’s possible for them to have an end result, a positive end result. … How do you get someone in line, get them stable? It’s just not as easy as saying ‘stop.’"

Snoddy, a Southern California kid turned ski bum, graduated from San Diego State University with dual degree in communications and economics and moved to Utah in 1973.

He jumped into the Park City lifestyle with abandon, carving out a good income selling real estate, tearing up the slopes in the winter and partying hard.

"I was a good-time Charlie, and it just went over the edge. I struggled with that for quite a long time to the point I realized it was ruling my life," he said.

There were lost nights spent sleeping on friends' couches. Friends took his car keys so he wouldn't drive drunk.

"At the Beer Bar up in Ogden, I’d literally sleep on the pool table at night. It was like, ‘Is this heaven? Or am I being punished?' I mean they left me alone in a bar," he said.

It finally got to the point that Snoddy knew something had to change.

"I was just really, really, really tired. I realized the jobs that I went through, that the quality of work was decreasing, and I knew I had a better ability than what I was providing. I never did go to treatment. I just started AA meetings and started with myself and started working it," he said.

Just as he has explained to Ortega, sobriety left him feeling better than he had in years. "It wasn’t too long before I just had this overwhelming warmth about me going, ‘OK, it’s OK,'" he recalled. He was 44.

A while later, he noticed an ad in the newspaper for a detox position at Volunteers of America-Utah's detox. He's been with agency since.

Like Ortega, Snoddy's life has become increasingly rich and full. He and his wife, Janice Kimball, executive director of the Housing Authority of the County of Salt Lake, both work in helping professions. She previously managed shelter operations for what is now the Road Home. The couple married on 7-7-07.

"She’s given me a lot of support. The times when things have been hard for me and things seem really depressing, she’s always been there," he said.

His daughter from a previous marriage, Carrie Anne, lives with them during the week and on the weekends with her mother.

"She has cri-du-chat syndrome," a developmental disorder that results from partial deletion of a specific chromosome.

"She’s 38 and has the capabilities of a 5-year-old or a 7-year-old. She loves Santa Claus. Mickey and Minnie Mouse will be forever heroes in her life. She never forgets a face. She loves to go fishing. She loves to be in the boat, camping. … It’s been an amazing journey. She gives me a lot of joy," he said.

Snoddy has a desk in an office along 400 West, but his real office is the outreach van he drives some 20,000 "good quality city miles" a year. He's glued to his cellphone talking to clients, service providers and government agencies solving myriad problems, such as helping one client get a copy of his Social Security card — for the 11th time.

He worked on Utah's inaugural "Housing First" program, which received national attention for saving public funds and helping people who were frequent users of hospital emergency rooms, jails and emergency services to become stabilized in the community by providing them places to live and intensive case management.

While housing remains the "ultimate goal" for outreach workers and case managers, Snoddy said he believes medical stability is a key first step "so they can feel comfortable about making a choice to change."

Reaching out

On a recent ride-along with the Deseret News, Snoddy got an urgent call from Corey Wilkerson who needed a ride to the emergency room. Wilkerson, 30, had a head injury resulting from a previous assault. To "treat" his pain, he was self-medicating with alcohol.

When he arrived at the park where Wilkerson was staying, Snoddy urged his companion to enter detox, too, so the two could rely upon one another once Wilkerson was released from the hospital into the detox center.

"You need some time out for a couple of days," Snoddy advised, driving him to the hospital.

When he returned to the park to pick up his friend, he had disappeared. But Snoddy swiftly found him a block away. He declined the offer to go to detox. Wilkerson entered detox after his release from the hospital, but he only stayed a couple of days.

That's how it goes with medical outreach, Snoddy says. Some people recognize they need help and work hard in recovery and transition out of homelessness. Others aren't ready to make a change.

"A lot of people don’t want to come into services for some reason. They’re scared to come in. A lot of it is mental health issues or anxiety that’s out of control. They cannot sit in a waiting room, even though they have a scheduled appointment. They can’t do it and you respect that. So we take services out to people where they’re at and meet them. It’s effective. It’s very effective in keeping people out of the emergency rooms," Snoddy said.

Trust has to be built over time and that comes after frequent encounters and outreach workers keeping promises they will return.

"We’re coming back. We’ll keep coming back. We’re going to be friends for the next few years until you get it right," he said.

While outreach workers receive a steady stream of referrals from law enforcement, other service providers and homeless people themselves, they also spend a lot of time looking for people who need help. Some are in plain view on the streets and others camp in fields, along the Jordan River or occupy abandoned buildings.

Snoddy has been checking in with some campers for decades, bringing them dry socks, coats or blankets. On winter holidays, he and longtime homeless advocate Pamela Atkinson deliver home-cooked meals to campers on the holidays.

"Pamela buys and I cook," said Snoddy, explaining that he also has worked in the food service industry.

One camper, a gentleman named Ed Malloy from Limerick, Ireland, became a dear friend to Snoddy.

After working in a steel factory elsewhere in the United States, Malloy decided he wanted to travel around the country.

"He had no drinking problem or anything. He was well-kept. He liked the Salt Lake area. But he liked to listen to the Jazz games on his radio. There’s times we’d sit in his camp in the evening and listen to the first part of a game with him on his radio," Snoddy said.

One year, Volunteers of America-Utah was gifted 20 tickets to a Jazz game.

Snoddy told Malloy, "'Come on. We’re going to go to a Jazz game.’ He was just totally shocked. So a bunch of us went to the Jazz game. Well these tickets are upper bowl. As soon as he came out into the arena, he went 'Ahhhh!' I’m like ‘Oh my gosh, like you’ve never been on a ladder.’ It was so high and intimidating.

"He just sat there intently looking at the game. He talked about that for years and years and years. It was just a wonderful experience for him."

Over time, Malloy developed congestive heart failure. "He said, 'I want you to take care of me. I went to the bank before I went to the hospital because I know I’m not doing well.'" He handed Snoddy $700 cash and asked to take care of his funeral arrangements.

"We were there just as he was passing. I told him I had made arrangements for him and asked, 'Where do you want your ashes?’

"He said, ‘At my camp.’

"I felt honored to be trusted to do that," Snoddy said.

After Malloy's death, he spent weeks searching the internet for his kin.

"If you hit County Limerick and look for Malloy there’s roughly 200,000. And then there’s the rest of the country," he said.

He couldn’t find anyone, so he eventually convened a memorial service at Malloy's former campsite. "His homeless friends, whomever, Pamela (Atkinson) was there with us and we said goodbye," he said, wiping a tear.

On the difficult days, Snoddy harkens back to time spent with Malloy and other friendships he's made along the way.

"Sometimes it’s so intense we don’t really realize the impact we have on helping people," he said.

'An enormous success'

Walk down the halls of Grace Mary Manor and there are a number of success stories that started with Snoddy pulling up to a vulnerable person on the street and offering his help.

Many have entered housing. Some remain on the streets, but after developing enough trust in Snoddy and other service providers, they accept services. Others have died, but their last years were spent off the streets where statistics say they will die prematurely, often from chronic health conditions.

After they are housed, Snoddy helps them transition by exposing them to activities that help them develop new interests, such as taking them on hikes in the canyons, going to a movie or out to eat.

Snoddy said his daily encounters with people experiencing homelessness, addiction and illness make him reflect on his own journey.

"It makes me grateful. It makes me grateful for where I came from and what I have now, a good family life, the ability to do things, the flexibility with the agency to run loose on the streets."

Ortega, for one, credits Snoddy for saving his life.

"It’s just wonderful to wake up warm and see the snow coming down and be like, 'I don’t have to be in that now, man. I don’t have to be all bundled up and stand over by the library waiting for it to open to get warm, or McDonald’s just to stay dry.'"

But more so, he looks up to Snoddy as an example that life can offer do-overs.

"He’s an inspiration to people. He used to say, ‘Hey man, it's worth it. Your life can be different from what you were used to and what you know from the street.'"

Snoddy calls Ortega "an enormous success story."

A while back, Snoddy was walking out of a movie theater on 3300 South when a car pulled up behind him and the driver honked the horn.

"I'm thinking, 'I’m going to get hit.' It’s Joe with this brother. He and his brother are going to the movies. That was about three months after he moved in here. He said, ‘This is my brother. I haven’t seen him in 10 years.’

"I’m going, ‘Wow. This is what I’m talking about.’ It was a little warm and fuzzy. Yeah, he’s on his way right now. He’s making it. He’s starting to step out of that competitive circle that you get hooked up in in addiction.

"He’s no longer worrying about where he’s going to get a drink. He’s worrying about, ‘Gosh, will I have enough money for popcorn?'”