SALT LAKE CITY — Daniel Smithwick has experienced homelessness for the past year. He says it's easy to get discouraged and hard to stay optimistic about his situation.
"Sometimes when we're here, I mean it's a real down point emotionally," he said Tuesday. "Emotionally, it drains you. We get to the point where we don't know what we want to do or how we're going to do it."
Helping the Salt Lake homeless population answer those questions is exactly why Catholic Community Services of Utah decided to create a Homeless Kitchen Training program designed to teach restaurant skills to those experiencing homelessness to help make them employable and reach self-sufficiency.
The 14-week program, slated to begin by September, will host 10 to 15 people in its first installment. Tuesday, several of Salt Lake's notable leaders ceremoniously broke ground on the expansion to St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall to host the program.
At least 60 people attended the event to celebrate the groundbreaking for the project.
"It might give me a chance to open up other doors and get back — my daughter wants me to get back to being productive," Smithwick, 59, said.
To him, that means restored "freedom," and "a sense of hope."
Smithwick, who is a client and works part time for the organization, said he wants those experiencing homelessness to know there are long-term solutions out there for them.
"There's a lot of opportunities here for us to get back on our feet," he said.
To host the program, the organization is expanding its operation at the dining hall located at 437 W. 200 South. Renovation should not interfere with its daily service of two meals a day, according to officials.
Construction of the expansion is scheduled to finish by late fall this year. The project is funded by several private donations:
• ALSAM foundation, which gives primarily for education, medical research, human services and Catholic agencies and charities, donated $1.5 million to cover construction costs.
• The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints donated about $500,000 for equipment and supplies for the program.
• Zions Bank donated $50,000 to the program.
• The Miller Family Foundation matched the $50,000 Zions donation.
Participants will receive hands-on training from experienced chefs, one-on-one case management for job placement and housing, and be placed into higher-wage positions in the restaurant industry, according to a news release. Participants will also be guaranteed a bed at a local homeless shelter.
Matthew Melville, director of the organization's homeless services, said he encouraged Utah restaurants to get involved with the project and partner with the organization.
"The soup kitchen has been, for 20 to 30 years … we've been providing a meal, which is great, but now we can also provide training on top of that meal," Melville said.
He said the organization is currently in the process of finding candidates for the program.
Melville spoke at the groundbreaking Tuesday, joined by community advocate Pamela Atkinson, Gail Miller of the Miller Family Foundation and the Most Rev. Oscar A. Solis, bishop of Salt Lake's Catholic Diocese.
Atkinson spoke about her love for her "homeless friends," and said the project will be a "huge success."
"This is a blessing from God," Bishop Solis told the crowd. He shared his "deepest, profoundest gratitude" to all who helped start the program.
He also said a prayer and a blessing and another priest read a scripture.
Miller, who volunteers regularly at the kitchen, said she believes the program will "improve their lives and help those around them."
"She comes here every Thursday," Smithwick said after the ceremony, pointing to Miller. "We talk every Thursday and I told her I saw a beautiful woman on a billboard that looked just like her and it was her. She's a good person."
Smithwick said it "feels great" to know there are people like Miller in the community who want to help address homelessness in Salt Lake City.
He also said it's common for others in the community to give up, stop functioning and seek short-term relief through drugs.
"A lot of people stop to function and … I told the ones doing drugs and stuff, I, too, was doing them, but it's just a temporary solution," he said. "It makes you numb to not feeling the emotional pain of being homeless, not knowing what you're going to do and stuff, but it's just temporary. Then when it wears off, you're back to the reality with less money."
Still, Smithwick has hopes that things are looking up for him and his community.
"A lot of people are starting to change their ways and have you noticed how it's clean out there? I told them just because we're homeless, we don't have to live with garbage all around us," he said. "It kind of labels us like we're terrible people and everybody's been pitching in (to clean up)."