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Volunteers help Utah homeless community brace for early freeze

Melody Chacon, homeless outreach worker for Volunteers of America, Utah, comforts Anna Wright after giving her a sleeping bag, clothes and food at Taufer Park in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019. Outreach workers were checking on the homeless community letting them know about upcoming freezing temperatures in the region.
Melody Chacon, homeless outreach worker for Volunteers of America, Utah, comforts Anna Wright after giving her a sleeping bag, clothes and food at Taufer Park in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019. Outreach workers were checking on the homeless community letting them know about upcoming freezing temperatures in the region.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — In a tank top and bare feet, Kelsey Wright lounged Tuesday afternoon at a Salt Lake park.

But she wasn’t taking in the sunlight as temperatures lingered in the mid-70s, making one almost believe summer hadn’t passed. Instead, Wright was getting supplies from Volunteers of America-Utah workers to help her face the impending first freeze of the season.

“I’ve been off and on out here for the last 12 years,” Wright explained. “Back in 2017 when it was snowing that hard and everything, I really thought most of us weren’t going to make it out. I really thought we were going to have a lot of us die out here, that’s how cold it got.”

She has gone “a while” without shoes. But because of substance abuse disorder, Wright said she doesn’t have a strong sense of time and can’t recall how long. To keep her feet warm at night, she said she wraps beanies around her toes.

But the homeless outreach workers, seeing her lack of shoes, opened their van door and found a pair of brown hiking boots in her size.

The workers had spent the earlier part of the day buying sleeping bags, basic supplies and cold weather clothing to hand out, said organization spokeswoman Sarah Cavalcanti.

They later visited areas where many people experiencing homelessness stay — like Taufer Park, where they found Wright — to warn people about the upcoming freeze that arrived Wednesday and brought even colder temperatures Friday morning in case they weren’t aware, and to inform them about current shelter options.

Salt Lake and Tooele valleys experienced temperatures in the 20s and low 30s during the early freeze, according to the National Weather Service.

Thankfully, warmer temperatures are expected through next week, according to the KSL Weather Center. But when the weather turns, those experiencing homelessness are faced with “lack of warm gear, lack of coats, hats, gloves, blankets, sleeping bags. And then, of course, frostbite and hypothermia are big things that can happen, because they don’t have the proper gear,” said Shawn Spalding, homeless outreach worker with Volunteers of America-Utah.

He and Melody Chacon, also a homeless outreach worker, together respond to calls from people who need help, and go out and find them. They also regularly visit homeless hubs.

“There’s times when we’ll get 30 calls, there’s times when we’ll get maybe 10, and then we’ll just get different locations, so it varies. But the winter months, it seems like there’s a lot more need,” Chacon said.

Spalding said because of Utah’s varying conditions — and common sudden onslaughts of cold — many who live on the streets don’t know when to prepare themselves.

Anna Wright, not a relation to Kelsey Wright, said what got her through the last three winters were simple donated items. “You put the Gatorade and Powerade bottles, and fill them up with hot water and use them for (hand) warmers,” she said.

“We have to struggle. Some of us stay together and work together, but pretty much, I’ve been on my own.”

But she said she doesn’t want people to feel sorry for her because “this is a learning experience. It can be misery, but it’s also what you make of it.”

Many of the calls in the winter tend to be emergency calls, when someone has frostbite or signs of hypothermia, Spalding said. Members of Salt Lake’s homeless community over the years have lost limbs to the cold.

“It’s hard to see people suffering,” he said.

Volunteers of America workers have been “extremely busy” lately, receiving 47 calls on Monday from members of the homeless community asking for supplies, Cavalcanti said. Those calls led workers to believe many in the homeless community know cold weather is on the horizon and that they should prepare. On a normal day, the organization receives 20 to 30 calls, according to Cavalcanti.

Catholic Community Services of Utah was also letting its clients know about the upcoming cold and the services offered, as well as information about resource centers, said Danielle Stamos, spokeswoman.

The first freeze arrived even as members of the homeless community continue to transition from the Road Home’s downtown shelter to new homeless resource centers.

Preston Cochrane, executive director of Shelter the Homeless, which owns the new centers, said all women have been moved out of the downtown shelter to the new Geraldine E. King Women’s Resource Center at 131 E. 700 South, which houses 200.

The South Salt Lake Resource Center, a 300-bed facility for men at 3380 S. 1000 West in South Salt Lake, will start welcoming clients in November after construction is completed at the end of October, according to Cochrane.

In July, disagreements arose when the South Salt Lake mayor tried to impose “nonnegotiables” within the center’s conditional use permit — including a demand that the shelter prohibit active drug users from entry.

The organization has considered transferring the shelter property to the state, which would allow the shelter to run without a conditional use permit through the city. But Shelter the Homeless is still working with South Salt Lake on the conditional use permit, Cochrane said. The city’s planning commission will meet on Oct. 17 to discuss the permit.

As of now, he said, “What we’re seeing so far is that both men and women are willing to come into the resource center and enage in resources. There’s an excitement to be in the new facility and have access to the different resources.

“And so, obviously, moving from the downtown shelter into the new resource center is a big change, but those individuals have responded to it very well. And we’re seeing an increased number of women willing to engage in services, and so that is very positive.”

With decreasing temperatures, the shelters expect to see their numbers go up.

“But it changes year to year, so people come and go. We’ll have a better sense of that when the weather turns and we start seeing the numbers,” Cochrane explained.