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'A family atmosphere': Volunteers treat Salt Lake's homeless to a picnic, live music at Pioneer Park

SALT LAKE CITY — Rosalind Shorty stretched out in the shade at Pioneer Park, watching contentedly as others played lawn games, got their faces painted and ate together.

"It's fun sitting here, listening to the music, watching the children," she said with a tranquil smile. "They're the ones who need it the most."

The occasion was a so-named "picnic in the park," where volunteers greeted scores of Salt Lake City's homeless Sunday with blankets, a full meal, live music, sack races, board games and more.

Many spread out their blanket in the shade to enjoy macaroni and cheese, burritos, cookies and fruit as they sat back and enjoyed blues performances from Tom Bennett, One Man Band. Recipients and volunteers commingled, with the occasional embrace.

Shorty, who has lived at the Road Home off and on since 1993, basked in what she called the togetherness at the park Sunday.

"I think it's a positive thing. I see a lot of volunteers bring their kids out here," she said. "It makes their kids feel good that they're doing something positive. They get to see we're not like people say we are."

Jennifer Brown, co-director of humanitarian services for the Legacy Initiative of Utah, the charitable organization that put on the picnic, agreed that the interaction itself, as much as anything, was what was rewarding for both those serving and being served.

"It's just kind of a family atmosphere," she said. "As you look around, there is a lot of laughter."

Teenager Reese Reynolds, who regularly volunteers with her mother, helped with the face painting. She said the dozen or so children who wanted their face painted made a poignant impression on her — especially one little girl in particular, who "walk(ed) away ... feeling like a princess."

"Even the little things for these people can be a big thing," Reynolds said. "Whatever it is, if we can bring it to them, we should."

Hannah Bluemel, Reynolds' friend who also volunteered to do face painting, was similarly touched. She joked that she was lucky the kids weren't perfectionist about exactly how the face paint looked.

"It's been really fun just seeing the joy light up on their face," Bluemel said. "It just brings joy to me."

A highlight for three-year Road Home resident Dorotha Antonio on Sunday was getting a hefty blanket — a personal possession she says she has been dealing without for a time, though the Road Home does provide bedding.

"I don't have a blanket for my bed," Antonio said as she happily turned her gift in her hands and examined it.

Operation Rio Grande on the mind

Both organizers and the homeless went out of their way Sunday to describe the picnic as an important step to returning to normalcy following Operation Rio Grande, the disruptive multiagency initiative that began earlier this month with the stated goal of jailing drug dealers who prey on the homeless, and helping others who suffer with addiction or mental health problems to get on the path to treatment and recovery.

Brown said she hoped the homeless individuals who attended would be reassured that Salt Lake City is a place where they are welcomed and their well-being is valued, particularly in light of recently ramped up police arrests in the neighborhood.

"(We are) making sure they know they're still welcome, with the recent sweeps that have been going on," Brown said. "I think it's just about breaking stigmas and breaking the 'us and them' (idea)."

Although Shorty is supportive of Operation Rio Grande carried out this month — "it's good because the streets are clean," she said — she worries about herself and others who are homeless being painted with a broad brush in light of the recent spate of arrests in the neighborhood. Because of that, she said, she looked forward to the face-to-face interaction with those who continue to want to help.

"A lot of people really don't like the homeless. ... Not all of us are about drugs and violence," Shorty said.

Antonio said the picnic "is great for people who have nothing."

"It's nice to see the community still cares. (It's nice) just to socialize — you meet new people," Antonio said. "It shows us all the community really cares about people."

Like Shorty, Antonio is worried she and others who are homeless are easily dismissed. She enjoys interacting with others who don't always work with people who live on the street, and making a friendly impression.

"(Not) all homeless people are ... bad people," she said, adding that the camaraderie at the picnic is evidence "that there are good homeless people."

Antonio and her husband have been stressed out in recent days by the intense activity of Operation Rio Grande, but she feels encouraged by the changes seen in the neighborhood in that time.

"I like the police, because it was getting out of control," she said. "This was getting out of hand, this drug thing."

Some, however, felt more skeptical that progress was being made. That included Curtis Smith, who has been at the Road Home with his wife for about a month.

Smith said that, for his family, both the difficulty of staying off the street and the problem of safety in the Rio Grande neighborhood seem like "a festering wound" with no easy solution. Regularly, Smith said, "I still get proposed a drug deal."