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Dying homeless in Salt Lake City

SALT LAKE CITY — A woman leaving the bank shortly before 11 a.m. was one of the first to notice him.

He was sitting on a concrete bench near One Utah Center, wearing a black sweatshirt and a dirty baseball hat, fingers curled, slumped over.

Word spread quickly after that. Two police officers stationed semi-permanently across the street answered her call. Then word traveled to the men and women who called Main Street their home, the ones who slept on the same sidewalks and shared their food and drugs with him. The news made its way to a security guard who had befriended him, then to his stunned family.

Justin Huggard shortly before his death in 2016. | Photo courtesy Aimee Rolfe

Then and only then did the news land like a thud in the home of Aimee Rolfe.

That Justin’s life had been wasted was clear to everybody, but most of all to 44-year-old Rolfe, a garrulous woman from Heber City who had been Justin’s best friend for nearly 30 years.

Justin was a felon and an addict who drank vodka out of the bottle.

A young Justin Huggard (middle) at around 3 years old with two cousins on their grandfather's snowmobile in Kamas. | Courtesy of Sadie Erickson

He had spent most of the last four years of his life homeless in downtown Salt Lake, scraping money together to feed his addiction before he fed himself.

He was small and scraggly, the sort of person you pass by on the street without noticing.

He was also loved.

And so, because he had meant everything to her, Rolfe bundled into her car one Wednesday during the first snowstorm of the season, drove 50 miles to the mortuary to retrieve his ashes, strapped the gray plastic box to the passenger seat of her car and placed an old photograph of him on top.

To nobody in particular, she announced that it was time to bring Justin home.

Dying homeless

Each year, between 70 and 100 homeless people die in Salt Lake City.

They are the legacy of a social safety net with gaping holes that has left the criminal justice system to catch the people, like Justin, who fall through the cracks.

Not that Salt Lake is unique. In every city, in every state, people are dying on the streets.

Last year, 44 homeless men and women died in New Orleans. In Sacramento, a coalition of homeless advocates counted 81. Denver counted 171. Orange County recorded more than 200. New York City counted 239.

Many of these counts are conducted unofficially by volunteers who triangulate between multiple agencies to locate and identify the dead.

In Justin’s case, he was missed. In fact, without the intervention of a friendly security guard, word of his death may never have gotten back to Justin’s family. And nobody would have known this:

That Justin Lee Huggard, who was 38 when he died, was born in Park City to a girl who was 14 years and four months old.

Justin Huggard, about 18 years old, with his cousin at his grandparents' house in Kamas where the family would spend summers together. | Courtesy of Sadie Erickson

That he grew up in Keetley, a mining town that was flooded by the waters of the Jordanelle Reservoir in 1995, before moving to Heber City.

That he always seemed to get beaten by the men his mother loved. Sometimes he showed up at his grandmother’s house black and blue with crib marks on his face or belt marks on his back.

That he started drinking and using drugs at a young age, sometimes with his parents.

That he died on the streets of downtown Salt Lake City with a dollar to his name.

That despite it all, friends say Justin was good.

Rolfe, who is effusive with a crackly laugh, met Justin at Pizza Hut when he was 12 or 13 and she was 17 or 18.

It was a version of Heber City still untouched by the development burgeoning in Park City. One stoplight and a lively nightlife. Jimmy. Jennifer. Aimee. Justin. The four of them would set up their lawn chairs right in the middle of the road in the summer and holler at friends who drove past. After Christmas, they would gather around bonfires of Christmas trees and wrapping paper.

Life in the trailer court was close-knit. Justin’s grandmother lived two minutes from his aunt. Rolfe lived just down the way. Justin's mom came home less and less frequently until it was mostly his grandmother and aunt who were raising him.

At night they roamed the mountains with radios playing hide and seek. On Sundays they took a friend's purple Chevy Blazer and drove as far east on Highway 35 as they dared, up through the pass and clear to Tabiona, and when they stopped, Justin would jump out and grab fistfuls of wildflowers and hand them to Rolfe.

They fell into drugs and alcohol at different times; he mostly alcohol and some heroin, Rolfe four years of meth.

Aimee Rolfe talks about her friend, Justin Huggard, while holding a box that contains his ashes at her home in Heber City on Thursday, March 30, 2017. Huggard was homeless when he died on a sidewalk in Salt Lake City in 2016. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

She kicked the habit faster than he did, moved into her own home in Heber at age 22, gave birth to her son Zach, then her daughter Liberty. She found work cleaning houses in Park City — mansions, homes with elevators and two or three kitchens.

She fed Justin on Sundays and stuffed leftovers into Tupperware to set him up for the week.

He frequented a bar called The Other End, where he and his mom were a daring pool team – they were unbeaten for two years and the bar made them pool sticks with their nicknames

“The Brat” for his mom, because she was a troublemaker.

“Rat Boy” for Justin, because he was small but had big ears.

He had work, sometimes at a recycling company, but it was low-paying, not enough to get him back on his own feet, and his addiction got in the way.

Strange as it sounds, more than anything, he loved to help people.

He had a habit of shoveling snow from his aunt and Rolfe’s driveway before she rose at 7 a.m. to send the kids to school.

“He’d help the neighbors with anything,” said his cousin Amber Salgado. “If he saw somebody packing groceries, he’d go help them with their groceries. Or if he’d see like an elderly person trying to get into their house, he’d help them up the stairs. And I’m sure he was the same way on the streets.”

He would have been content with a wife and some kids, but he was shy around women. He loved kids and wouldn't drink when he baby-sat Zach and Liberty. Justin, Rolfe thought, wanted everything he couldn’t have.

Tragedies found Justin. His mother was the first to die, age 41, from pneumonia.

His grandmother died five years later. The news sent him spiraling, deepening his depression and adding to his loneliness. Shortly afterward, Justin moved to downtown Salt Lake City and became homeless.

“Whenever he got depressed, whenever he got lonely, he turned to his bottle,” Salgado said. “And Justin was always depressed and he was always lonely.”

Justin would get back on his feet for a few months at a time, but it never lasted. Last year, he was hospitalized for about a month with pneumonia.

Shortly after being discharged, he went to Rolfe’s house to tell her that he was going back to Salt Lake City. That there was no reason for him to stay in Heber anymore.

Rolfe stuffed six pairs of socks, a first-aid bag and her favorite hoodie into his arms. Her teenage son gave him a knife. He didn’t need any of it, but it made Rolfe feel better.

“I knew it was the last time I’d ever see him,” Rolfe said. “I just knew in my heart.”

A kind security guard

Scott Camara, a 45-year-old former security guard at One Utah Center, said there was something different about Justin. A scruffy guy with missing teeth, he came up to Camara on one of his first shifts at the security company three years ago just wanting to chat.

“In fact,” Camara said, “he was probably one of the only ones there that never asked for anything.”

Scott Camara poses for a photo outside his parents' home, where he currently lives, in Provo on Monday, April 10, 2017. Camara befriended Justin Huggard while working as a security guard in downtown Salt Lake City. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Camara, a stocky man who wears his hair in a short mohawk, struck up a friendship with Justin. Whenever Camara came out for his break on his 12-hour weekend shifts, Justin would meet him. They bonded over a shared sense of humor and a love of fishing.

Often, Camara would let Justin call his aunt on his phone. Sometimes, Justin would cry.

Last summer, after Justin had gotten back on his feet, Camara drove from his house in Provo to Heber City to pick him up to go fishing on one of his days off.

Justin opened the door, stunned. “He couldn’t believe that I actually followed through,” Camara said. They drove to Deer Creek, where it rained and they didn’t catch any fish. But against the backdrop of the Wasatch Mountains, they talked and talked.

Justin was lonely and depressed, the type of guy who didn’t feel like he deserved anything. He talked often about how much he missed his mom and grandmother. He drank, heavily.

He was always trying to quit, but he would fall victim to terrible withdrawals, including seizures. It became hard for him to communicate or carry on a conversation. He didn’t know how to function.

More than once, Justin gave away food and money to other homeless people. “What was hard for me, too, is they wouldn’t appreciate it,” Camara said. “They didn’t appreciate it at all."

There was something else that drew Camara to Justin — an intermittent drug problem that he’d had since he was 18.

“His was more out in the open,” Camara said. “Mine was always hid.”

Camara had always held down a job. He had successfully raised two kids. And he’d kept a roof over their heads for their entire lives. But after three years of working in downtown Salt Lake City, where people would use drugs “right in front of God and everyone out there,” Camara found himself struggling against dark thoughts. Camara saw what happened to Justin and others like him, and it frightened him. He begged his supervisor to transfer him.

Although most people don't think of it that way, research increasingly supports the definition of addiction as a brain disease.

Repeated use of alcohol desensitizes the reward circuits of the brain, making it harder for people like Justin to get joy out of normal events — a good conversation with a friend or a beautiful sunset. Addiction erodes brain regions involved in decision-making and self-control. Early exposure, family history and poor social support increase vulnerability.

Nine months ago, Camara entered rehab. He’s been clean since and stopped smoking as well.

Scott Camara poses for a photo outside his parents' home, where he currently lives, in Provo on Monday, April 10, 2017. Camara befriended Justin Huggard while working as a security guard in downtown Salt Lake City. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

The last he heard, Justin had gotten back on his feet, moved back in with his aunt, and cleared up his outstanding warrants.

Then, in October, Camara spotted Justin at the Rock ’N’ Ribs festival at the Gallivan Center. Justin was happy to see him but looked thinner than ever and weak. His wife and kids gave Justin some food and they listened to the music together. Justin told them he was depressed and dying. He'd said those words before. He looked upset when they had to leave.

“He just gave up after that,” Camara said. “I just don’t think he had any more fight in him at all.”

Finding him

“When he wasn’t doing right — oh, heck, I got on him."

That’s Colleen Swasey, the woman who found Justin. A 61-year-old woman from Taylorsville, she arrives at work on Main Street every day at 6:30 a.m. and always looks for the homeless people who make that block their home. “Just to make sure they’re there,” Swasey said. “Then I go down there and give them a lecture.”

Swasey is opinionated, almost harsh. Eight years working on Main Street has made her cynical. She used to dispense cigarettes and change. Now she dispenses advice.

“These guys like to be homeless, most of them do,” she said. “Apply for food stamps, they get food stamps. They apply for disability, they get disability. And then they get all that money to spend on stuff they don’t need.”

“Justin said, 'All I have to pay for is alcohol, everything else is free for me.' And it is.”

Homeless advocates say this is a common misconception. But they do struggle sometimes to separate the people who want to change from those who simply aren’t ready.

On any given night in the U.S., more than half a million people are homeless. Of those, about 2,800 on any one night call Utah home.

Five percent are unaccompanied youth. Twelve percent are veterans. And 35 percent are people in families with children, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Many of them are older — today, half of America’s homeless are 50 or older.

One in five have a serious mental illness and a similar percentage have a chronic substance abuse disorder. The problem is complex and multilayered.

Swasey said that many homeless people she knew choose to take their chances on the sidewalk, even in the cold, rather than risk the theft and violence that run rampant both inside and outside The Road Home shelter.

She tried to encourage Justin to go back to Heber City. You did it before, she would tell him, you can do it again.

Justin Huggard, 34, in Heber, before he died. | Courtesy of Aimee Rolfe

When she saw Justin doing Spice, a synthetic marijuana, with his friends, she hounded him. She scolded. She looked it up on the internet and told Justin that it would make his brain bleed.

She had seen too many deaths over the years.

There was the “Indian girl” three years ago whose nose wouldn’t quit bleeding and legs swelled until they looked like balloons. The paramedics took her but said there was nothing they could do.

There was Bruce, who Swasey caught drinking hairspray. He died shortly after leaving the hospital.

There was Nate, the Vietnam veteran who jumped off of the parking garage behind Carl’s Jr. last year. It was a Saturday.

This and more in eight years working here.

Why, oh why, would Justin want to come back?

"This is where all my friends are," Justin would reply.

"This was home for him,” Swasey said. “He’d been here so long that it’d become home."

The bishop

Brad Baird is in his office on the 21st floor of One Utah Center, trying to explain.

Baird, 62, spent nearly 38 years commuting from his home in Heber City to his job in downtown Salt Lake, first as a real estate director for a natural gas company and then for 13 years as an executive with the Economic Development Corporation of Utah.

As an LDS bishop, Baird worked with many people in his ward who struggled with addiction and employment. Baird had taken a liking to Justin, who was gentle and polite, and tried to help him with counseling and jobs.

Brad Baird sits on the bench where he last saw Justin Huggard in Salt Lake City on Thursday, April 6, 2017. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Once, when he needed an extra hand on the tree farm he runs in Heber, he hired Justin for a few days. But the work wasn’t constant and Justin had his demons, particularly alcohol.

“He was a good worker,” Baird said. “I always felt like he had so much potential if anyone would give him a chance.”

For a while, it seemed like Justin was pulling things together. He was attending church every week and had even gotten a job as a housekeeper at a hotel in Park City — the first full-time job he’d ever had where he could be independent.

Then the hotel did a background check on its employees and found a past felony conviction for drug use. He was fired.

“That just devastated him,” Baird said.

After Justin became homeless, Baird would see him downtown and occasionally buy him lunch. “You’ve got more in you than what you’re showing,” he’d tell him. “You’ve got great capacity to do good things.”

By then the petty charges had begun to pile up.

October 9, 2012: Disturbing the peace. Dismissed.

June 20, 2013: Use of roadway by a pedestrian. Dismissed.

March 4, 2013: Trespassing. Three days in jail and a $100 fine.

April 18, 2014: Open container. Dismissed.

Jan. 18, 2015: Theft of services (UTA). Four days in jail.

Jan. 2, 2016: Justin’s last interaction with the system. He was charged with disorderly conduct and intoxication. A judge fined him $370.

Ten months later, he was dead.

Brad Baird sits on the bench where he last saw Justin Huggard in Salt Lake City on Thursday, April 6, 2017. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

“I feel like I had an opportunity and missed it,” Baird said, quietly. He had seen Justin a week before and thought about taking him to lunch.

Months later, Baird watched the news coverage of a town hall in Draper with a heavy heart. Mayor Troy Walker had volunteered Draper to host one of the homeless resource centers that the city wanted to spread out across the county, but residents shouted him down and booed a homeless man.

Baird sees both sides “very clearly.”

He empathizes with residents who are concerned — legitimately so — with having a shelter like The Road Home in their community, around their children, near their homes.

But “I think most of the people in that meeting — if they knew a Justin, if they had a Justin in their family, would not be afraid,” Baird said.

The last day

It was nearly noon on Nov. 4 when police rolled Justin over and saw his face, purple and blue. It had been cold that night, and Justin’s cause of death was ruled to be “exposure/pneumonia.”

But those who saw him right before he died, like Swasey, said he had been using Spice.

Because the medical examiner’s office doesn’t usually screen for Spice, it’s still unclear exactly what happened. The news trickled onto Facebook, where old acquaintances circulated the rumor that Justin had overdosed on heroin, and Rolfe spent several days angrily responding. Maybe it didn’t matter how he died to the rest of the world. But it mattered to her.

Boxes store the unclaimed ashes of poor and indigent deceased at Carver Mortuary Services in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, April 04, 2017. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Because the family couldn't afford to pay for a funeral, Justin’s body went to the county, which has been paying for "indigent burials" of the poor and homeless since the county was founded in the 1800s.

That means the last one to handle their bodies is someone like Shane Westmoreland, the mortician and manager of Carver Mortuary Services.

In one of the back rooms of the building, which sits in an industrial part of town, a curtain of ugly brown paisley shields the forgotten from the gaze of the sun and the glare of the public.

Little plastic boxes are stacked neatly on three mismatched tables, each affixed with a label that spells out the deceased’s name and gives them a number.

Abigail Oden #4653

Johanna Gurule #4419

George Chavez #4301

Gilbert Tanaka #909

Dennis Ogdin #628

The mortuary does more than 100 cremations a month, of which about 30 are so-called "indigents" — people whose families do not have enough money to afford a burial, or those who have no family and friends at all. The county pays the mortuary half of what it usually charges.

Boxes store the unclaimed ashes of poor and indigent individuals at Carver Mortuary Services in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, April 4, 2017. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Westmoreland opens a box to demonstrate how they affix a tag to each set of remains so they can identify the deceased. He pulls out a bag of ashes. “Just carbon,” he says.

Every once in a while, someone comes to scoop up all the veterans. The rest wait under Westmoreland's watchful eye.

Technically, the mortuary is allowed to get rid of the remains after 90 days. But as long as there is room on the shelves, "We'll keep them for as long as we can," Westmoreland said.

Justin was Number 3440. Rolfe felt conflicted as she accepted his remains.

"We knew he was dead," she said. "There was no question. But getting that box right there was reality."

To the outside world, Justin's death came and went like a raindrop in an ocean.

The men and women who knew Justin on the streets made a memorial for him out of a wrinkled piece of cardboard and offered pieces of fruit and chicken. Someone wrote on the cardboard:

A makeshift memorial created by homeless friends of Justin Huggard.| Photo courtesy Colleen Swasey

Always Remembered

Never Forgotten


A five-sentence story went out in the newspaper saying that police were investigating the death of what was thought to be a “transient” at 235 S. Main St.

Somehow the cadre of homeless advocates at the Fourth Street Clinic who volunteer every year for the same grim duty — compiling the list of homeless men and women who died the previous year — missed him.

Monte Hanks, the client services director at the clinic, counted 92 homeless people who died last year, including five veterans. For whatever reason, the police forgot to tell him about Justin.

On a busy Thursday morning, nearly at the end of what had been a long and frustrating week, Hanks sighed. “God almighty,” he said. “I think we started doing this in ’06, ’07.”

The 69-year-old Vietnam veteran struggled with substance abuse and anger issues after returning to civilian life. It took the death of his father at age 64 to put him on the path “back to living,” as Hanks puts it.

In the decade since Hanks has been recording the deaths of homeless people in Salt Lake City, he's seen the same rotating cast of complications every year: Drug overdose. Alcoholism. Heart failure. Suicide. Cancer. Car accidents. Murder.

Now a number of stakeholders, from politicians who want to fix the problem to developers who want to tear the Road Home down to advocates who have fought for the homeless for years, are jumping in.

Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder floated a plan to create a homeless campsite that was criticized by the ACLU of Utah.

Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams fought a bitter battle to locate a homeless shelter in South Salt Lake, a move that many advocates questioned because it would put the homeless farther away from transportation and other services.

The Downtown Alliance announced a program that would discourage people from giving panhandlers money.

If it were up to Hanks, he would push for what he says is a dire need for more medical detox facilities and mental health services. He says the homeless need a medically supervised place to recuperate — “a time-out from whatever problems you had on the streets” — and then innovative housing like the Other Side Academy that focuses on work ethic, integrity and responsibility.

“People go, ‘Oh, it’s just the homeless,’” Hanks said. “Well, that’s crap. Almost every family out there has got a story like this.”

On Dec. 13, homeless advocates and clinic employees gathered at Pioneer Park to honor the 92 homeless who had died that year. A DJ played music. Longtime homeless advocate Pamela Atkinson gave a speech. The attendees spoke a prayer:

Let me be a little kinder,

Let me be a little blinder

To the faults of those about me,

Let me praise a little more.

Four days later, after temperatures dipped to 21 degrees, the sun rose on the body of another homeless man.

A final trip

Rolfe made her way carefully back to Heber City through the storm, fielding phone calls from Justin’s worried aunt, Christine Huggard.

As she climbed the stairs to Huggard’s house, holding Justin’s ashes in her arms, she grasped at the empty feeling in her chest. In the kitchen, the two women put the box on the counter and gaped at it.

Justin, she thought, what are we going to do with you now?

The children roamed about, approaching the box with curiosity. “What do you mean Justin’s in that box?” asked 10-year-old Devin, one of Justin’s aunt’s grandsons.

Nine years ago, they had all gone tubing on the Provo River, and Rolfe crashed into a tree and fell into the water.

Struggling to surface, Rolfe realized that a cord connected to a cooler had wrapped around her neck and was strangling her, holding her beneath the powerful current.

Aimee Rolfe talks about her friend, Justin Huggard, at her home in Heber City on Thursday, March 30, 2017. Huggard was homeless when he died on a sidewalk in Salt Lake City in 2016. At the table is a gray box containing Huggard's ashes, a pair of photos of Huggard, and a single dollar bill that was in his wallet when he died. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Suddenly, Justin was there, next to her, cutting the rope with a knife, pulling her out of the water. Rolfe's neck was raw and red, her legs like hamburger from beating against the rocks.

Afterward, they walked along the railroad tracks by the river while he sang to her: "Lollipop, lollipop…"

Rolfe told everybody who would listen that he saved her life.

“No, I didn’t,” Justin would say.

“Yeah, you did. You know you saved my life.”

“I’m a simple man, Aimee,” he’d laugh.

It would have been better, Rolfe sometimes thinks, if they could have afforded to bury Justin. Next to his mom and grandmother in Heber Cemetery. Not like this, a box and a Ziploc bag of his last possessions: a wallet, a packet of rolling tobacco, a piece of paper with her phone number scrawled on it.

Police records later showed that Justin had died wearing Aimee’s sweatshirt. She didn’t get it back.

Where to put him to rest? It preoccupied her thoughts, crowded out any sense of closure over his death.

Four months had passed, and still she wasn’t sure where to scatter him.

“We’re just going to fling him,” Rolfe jokes. Maybe they would sprinkle them in the Jordanelle, near Keetley, or in the Provo River, where he saved her life. His cousin wanted some of the ashes. Maybe she would save some for a tattoo.

On a damp Thursday afternoon, Rolfe stepped outside to smoke a cigarette, walking to the place where the sidewalk ends and the gravel driveway starts. The last place she saw Justin.

Aimee Rolfe talks about her friend, Justin Huggard, at her home in Heber City on Thursday, March 30, 2017. Huggard was homeless when he died on a sidewalk in Salt Lake City in 2016. At the table is a gray box containing Huggard's ashes, a pair of photos of Huggard, and a single dollar bill that was in his wallet when he died. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

She tried to talk him out of leaving. She pleaded.

“He just told me that there was no reason for him to stay here anymore. That he wanted to go back there," Rolfe said.

She wondered how many people had walked past him downtown. She wondered whether the people who found him had carried his body gently, carefully, as she would have, or whether they didn’t care.

If only they had known him as the 13-year-old kid being raised by his grandmother, she thought. If only they had known how devastated he was after she died. If only they knew about how he would play kick the can with neighborhood kids as the sun set against the Wasatch Mountains, and the time he had fallen into a hole and twisted his ankle and limped around wailing “Oh, my cankle! Owie! Owie!” to make the children laugh.

They would have liked him, she thought. They would have understood.

Her mom poked her head out of the door. It was time to go. They had to take Zach downtown.

“I think I might put some of Justin in the flower beds,” Rolfe yelled. “What do you think?”

She turned away as she laughed, wiping tears from her cheeks.

She would wait. It was still too cold, too dreary. They need to wait for a day with sunshine and balloons and hot dogs and beer. It had to be the right time. The right place.

She wanted to get it just right — to find a home for Justin. It had to be perfect. He deserved it.

Editor's note: This is the first in a three-day series on understanding those who are homeless and searching for ways to help.

How to help in Salt Lake County:

The Road Home

(801) 359-4142

A nonprofit social services agency that provides emergency shelter, case management and emergency services to help the homeless transition back into the community.

The Fourth Street Clinic

(801) 364-0058

A medical clinic primarily serving homeless Utahns and offers primary care, dental care, and behavioral health care.

Volunteers of America

(801) 363-9414

A human services nonprofit that provides affordable housing and substance abuse treatment for the low-income and homeless.

Crossroads Urban Center

(801) 364-7765

A grass-roots nonprofit organization that runs an emergency food pantry and thrift store to assist underserved Utahns.

Utah Food Bank

(801) 978-2452

A nonprofit that distributes food across all 29 counties in the state with direct service programs to children and seniors.

United Way of Salt Lake

(801) 736-8929

The world’s largest privately funded charitable organization.

The Other Side Academy


A free two-year school where students learn vocational, pro-social and life skills. Available to men and women involved in the criminal justice system, the homeless, substance abusers and others.

The Inn Between


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A refuge where Utah's homeless men and women can die with dignity and receive professional hospice services.

Catholic Community Services

A social service agency that runs the St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall and Weigand Homeless Resource Center, a day shelter for homeless individuals.