Illustration by Randy Glass

When Pamela Atkinson was a young girl lying in bed with her sisters in England, she’d plot a future that included education and opportunity. She dreamed of indoor plumbing and plentiful food. She vowed she’d leave poverty and poor people themselves behind.

She was partly right. Atkinson completed high school and college — the only one of five siblings to do either — became a nurse and moved to Australia, then the United States, where she raised her own family and obtained a degree.

She did leave poverty, but she never left the poor. She’s long advised governors and lawmakers, but she’s happy to have tea in a makeshift cardboard room with a homeless friend. She moves easily between corporate boardrooms and riverside encampments — an egalitarian hugger who dispenses love without regarding one’s station in life.

It is her love of those who struggle that’s carved her legacy, first as vice president of mission services for Intermountain Healthcare and now in a very active “retirement.”

Her sharp mind and tender heart give the seemingly ageless octogenarian a wide selection of friends and pursuits. Her First Presbyterian Church has a “Pamela’s Closet” that gathers goods to help the poor. When Deseret Magazine interviewed her, she was parked by the Salt Lake health clinic for the homeless that bears her name.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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You’re equally comfortable with have-lots and have-littles. What have you learned about helping others?

I’ve tried to be a good leader — and a good leader knows when to lead, but also when to follow. Great ideas come out of group thinking. That’s when people come up with creative solutions.

When we learn to love, appreciate and respect one another despite diversity of opinions, we can accomplish so much more for those who have so many needs. 

I know everybody can give. One lady used to send me a check to buy a pair of socks for anybody who needed them. She made a huge difference with that gesture of caring. We all have a certain amount of power within us.

You said you planned to never look back when you escaped your childhood poverty. What changed?

Although I made plans for Pamela, I think I probably gave God a good chuckle. I think he has a wonderful sense of humor and I think he had plans for me and I didn’t know it. 

I’ve learned the Lord never gives up on us. I decided at age 14 I was going to get a great education and learn as much as I could in high school. I loved learning. I have a very curious mind. As I got older and became a nurse, I found that caring for people gave me great joy. Nursing also gave me great sadness, particularly when people died. But I found that doing little things for people made a huge difference.

When we lived in Seattle, I heard an ad for people to help serve dinner on Christmas Day, so two of my children and I went down to the Salvation Army. I was astounded at how many homeless people were so grateful for being served a wonderful dinner and then being given some clothes. I vowed to continue doing that.

Pamela Atkinson, longtime advocate and volunteer for the homeless, has the Fourth Street Clinic named after her in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Sept. 23, 2003. | Deseret News archive

When I came to Salt Lake, I discovered a Salvation Army and Catholic Community Services —  tremendous opportunities to volunteer. Then I found my greatest joy was boots on the ground, working directly with homeless and low-income friends. Everybody was an individual. There were commonalities in some of their stories, but I just found it was easy to listen to people. I decided I needed to do more listening. 

When you listen to somebody who hasn’t had the opportunity to share all that’s going on in their life, it could open up so many doors, and people want to be listened to. It doesn’t take long.

As I listen, I’m thinking of the help they need and who I’m going to refer people to. I’m not expert in everything, but gosh, I have such a fantastic network of people to whom I can refer others and make sure they get the professional expertise they need.

It’s easy to care with one’s family, one’s friends. There’s good in so many people that sometimes requires people to reach out to them.

Are situations sometimes frightening?

Years ago, a grandson was having surgery and I flew to California to be with my daughter. There were a lot of gangs around and bars on the lower-level windows. I decided to go to this deli I’d heard made great sandwiches. One of the nurses told me where it was and said, “Be careful. It’s a little dangerous out there.” At the end of one block, I saw this group dressed in leather and they had all kinds of paraphernalia. And I thought, ‘I really want that sandwich.’ So I continued walking toward them, and they all turned to look at me. I just said, “Hi guys, how are you?” They smiled and I said, “I’m looking for this deli, I hear they have great sandwiches, can you help me?” And they said, “Lady, it’s not safe around here, we’ll escort you.” So the whole gang walked me to get the sandwiches and then they took me back to the hospital. 

I learned a valuable lesson. Sometimes, I’ll say something to someone and if they’re hostile and may not be safe, I’ll say, “Well, thank you anyway,” and walk away. But sometimes I have the most wonderful conversations with people who looked like they don’t care about anything. 

Are there more or fewer homeless now?

If I look back on the last 20 or 30 years, it’s amazing how many homeless people have gone into the shelters and now the resource centers, and providers have been able to get them into housing, where they can become self-sufficient.

The Road Home in December had 48 people leave their resource center and get into housing. That’s one agency in one month. 

“I just found it was easy to listen to people. I decided I needed to do more listening.”

Periodically, people hail me that I haven’t seen in years and they made it off the streets. The resource centers got them counseling, case management and they found people who really cared. Now they’re working, an integral part of the community.

I think the situation is somewhat worse now because of opioids and methamphetamine and alcohol. It’s hard to get them away from tent cities, because others enable them by dropping off food and clothing. Social workers have gone with the police through the camp and rescued some who have come into the resource centers and had necessary counseling and mental health counseling. We need to get more mental health; we need more affordable housing.

I seldom get down in the dumps. I am blessed to see how much good is happening.

What about regrets?

I sometimes think I’ve missed opportunities to help someone because I’ve been too tired. If I don’t do it, I sometimes get what I call a holy nudge. It’s the Lord reminding me of an opportunity to do his work. If I get a little selfish and think, “Oh, I just need to go home, I’m so tired,” sometimes I get a holy shove. It almost feels literal. Afterward, after I’ve been able to help the person, I say, “Thank you, Lord for shoving or nudging me,” whatever he did. It’s a great reminder that there’s always something to do, and to remain observant.

I have also learned to accept help from others gracefully.

Gov. Gary Herbert, center, and Pamela Atkinson right, talk during a ribbon-cutting ceremony for Pamela’s Place Apartments in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020. The Housing Authority of Salt Lake City newest, permanent supportive housing development is named after Atkinson, a longtime community advocate for people experiencing homelessness. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Have you always been religious?

More so I think in the last 30 years, but no, I wasn’t. I just learned one can have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I’ve learned he’s always there when I need him, and he puts other people in my life to help me. I’ve been amazed at the miracles he’s performed — small miracles at times, always involving helping somebody or putting other people there to help me.

Any last words?

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I never, ever let issues interfere with relationships. If a legislator said, “Pamela, I’m not going to do it and this is why,” I say, “You know, I really appreciate you sharing your thoughts with me and listening to me. If there’s other information I can get you, please let me know.” Sometimes the legislator will say, “Does this mean we can still be friends?”

Absolutely.

I once told somebody, “I disagree with you 75% of the time, but I still like you and still learn from you.” You shouldn’t dislike somebody because you disagree on certain issues.

This story appears in the April issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.

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