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Inside the newsroom: A new perspective on the homeless. Can Thanksgiving launch us into a compassionate future?

On the street with Brooklyn, Richard and Christian

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People camp in the park strip along 700 South near State Street in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

The temperature was in the mid-40s Saturday afternoon, but when Salt Lake’s cityscape blocked the low, late-afternoon November sun, the cold in the shadows felt much more biting.

Brooklyn sat on the grass wrapped in a hooded sweatshirt with his legs tucked in a sleeping bag. His mates, Christian and Richard, stood nearby, about 100 yards north of a group of about 25 others camped on the corner of 100 South and 200 East in Salt Lake City.

A few feet east up 100 South were a dozen more people scattered in two groups. Most would settle in for the night; others would wander east a full city block farther up the road, where a group of four, sitting on a strip of grass outside the 7/11 had grown to 10 within an hour. One woman there was also using a sleeping bag to fight the chill.

Salt Lake City has three homeless shelters and a government and philanthropic effort to not just fight the blight of homelessness, but to actually help the homeless. The street, however, is the current public face of homelessness in Salt Lake City.

“Where are you sleeping tonight?” I asked, as I started to get to know the guys.

Christian and Richard said they’ve known each other for 30 years. Richard grew up in the Avenues nearby. His grandparents lost their house, his father died, and after a military stint things didn’t go well. Christian and I didn’t go deeply into his story. Brooklyn — his street name — said he, too, was a military veteran, listing a few tours, including Afghanistan. He was the one who responded to my question about where they would sleep.

“Right here,” he said, pointing to the stretch of grass.

When I asked if services for veterans were helping them at all, all three laughed. This was the immediate, big kind of laugh reserved for the uninitiated and uninformed.

“Nothing against you,” they said to me, “but they ain’t helping.”

I asked Christian if a tent would help him get back on his feet?

“I need to help myself,” he said, taking responsibility for his current circumstances. But a tent and a place to put it would be a start, he agreed. Richard then weighed in:

“We’d even move it every 16 days if they wanted us to.” They just want to be able to live without being rousted.

Deseret News reporter Katie McKellar and photojournalist Jeffrey Allred today present their exploration of a possible solution for Salt Lake City. They traveled to Austin, Texas, in search of both short- and long-term solutions that have caught the attention of city leaders across the country, including in Utah.

Austin created a tiny-home community, and also has a transitional tent community — and an ethic of responsibility within each of them. Key to this kind of progress is finding the land, the money and the ability to convince a skeptical public that a designated tent city and/or a tiny-home village is a solution, if not a permanent cure.

“If you had a tent and a place to put it, would you go to that place?” I asked.

Brooklyn didn’t mince words.

“Hell yeah,” he said, gaining the approving nods of Christian and Richard.

Over and over again, each talked about their group and those farther down the road as a community. Unprompted by me, they validated what Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall told McKellar in her story today.

“When I talk to people on the street who choose that lifestyle over and over, I hear, ‘This is my community, I don’t want to go to an apartment where people surrounding me ... don’t understand my needs and my struggles,’” Mendenhall said. “I get that. I think we get that need for belonging and a place, a place of permanence where you’re accepted as you are.”

The three men I spoke to addressed the problem of trash in the area. The community tries to clean it up, but not always. Saturday trash was everywhere.

“What about drugs?” I asked.

“It’s not like it used to be,” they said. Years ago, 500 West in Salt Lake City, just down from the Road Home was ground zero for the drug trade. That prompted intense enforcement and led to the closure of the Road Home shelter and establishment of the homeless resource centers.

When I asked about those beds, they knew there were fewer beds available than there used to be at the Road Home, and it wasn’t their community. They then lamented that on the street, not everyone behaves well. They told me about a person who defecated near the day care that accompanies the church the campers front. It angered them because it reflects on the whole community.

“They have to get a security guard there now because of that,” they said.

“Worried about COVID-19?” I asked.

“We’ve probably had it already,” they said. But it was also a reason they gave for not wanting to be in the walls of a shelter. What was clear is that these three were looking out for each other, as well as the others down the road.

As we were finishing up our conversation, Christian said he needed to go for a bit but told Brooklyn he’d be back in an hour. Brooklyn turned to me and said if I want to understand vets on the street I should go to YouTube and play “Five Finger Death Punch- Wrong Side of Heaven.”

I went home and played it. It has 312,511,096 views since 2014. It shows soldiers in action, interspersed with homeless vets coping on the street. It poses a question: Why are vets forgotten?

The end of the video lists service after service to help veterans. Saturday, it wasn’t about services, it was about getting to know each other better. The video is important to Brooklyn and now I know how important being an American soldier was to him. Homeless is not his identity.

Austin, Texas, may have a solution. It remains to be seen if we all have the will to keep pushing for one as a starting place for Richard, Christian and Brooklyn.