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To-go Thanksgiving meals aim to help keep those in Utah’s homeless camps healthy

‘It’s Thanksgiving with a twist — and the twist is to keep everybody healthy’

Lori Tonge grimaces as she gets a flu shot in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2020.
Lori Tonge, who is homeless, grimaces as she gets a flu shot in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2020. Volunteers with the Rescue Mission of Salt Lake delivered boxed meals and provided vaccines for the homeless during the organization’s Two-Days-Before-Thanksgiving Banquet.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Jose Martinez was among a small throng that crowded around the back of a pickup truck as Rescue Mission volunteers were handing out Styrofoam to-go boxes filled with Thanksgiving dinners earlier this week.

Martinez was among the lucky ones who got a meal, packed in a brown plastic grocery bag. He carried it back to his tent, pitched on the sidewalk of Rio Grande Street, right out front of Catholic Community Services’ Weigand Homeless Resource Center.

“It’s a blessing, really,” Martinez told the Deseret News on Tuesday.

Martinez saved the food for later. It may have been the only Thanksgiving dinner he would get this week, unsure where he’ll be spending the holiday. He said he’ll likely be right there — in his tent sitting on the sidewalk amid the line of tents in the Rio Grande neighborhood, where many of Utah’s unsheltered homeless have staked out a place of their own to sleep.

The row of tents sat on the street right next to what is now an empty, fenced off plot of land where the Road Home’s downtown shelter once stood before state leaders purchased the land and demolished it. A “for sale” sign was still posted on the property.

Even though three homeless resource centers meant to replace the downtown shelter are up and running, they have been functioning at near- or at-capacity even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit and many homeless individuals still camp in the Rio Grande area and throughout Salt Lake City neighborhoods, turned off from the shelters’ rules or fearful of living in a shelter setting amid COVID-19 times.

Martinez, who said he’s been homeless on Salt Lake City streets for about a year now as he’s struggled to find a job, sometimes stays in the resource centers, but he said it’s difficult to get a bed. These nights, even in the cold, Martinez said it’s easier just to pitch a tent.

“My situation is it’s very difficult to explain,” he said. “It’s hard, you know.”

It’s people like Martinez that Rescue Mission of Salt Lake volunteer John Dymock wanted to help on Tuesday.

Martinez got his meal from the back of Dymock’s pickup truck, where more hands reached for Thanksgiving dinners than Dymock and other volunteers had to give.

Dymock, from Herriman, said he wanted to volunteer to put in perspective his own daily struggles. He said it’s easy for people with busy lives to “forget that there’s others in need. You get into this routine that goes from days to weeks to months without even looking outside of your own box.”

“Especially during this time of the season when I get to reflect on all of my blessings and the things I take for granted, it’s good to give back and see the other side of the coin — what people have to live and go through every day,” Dymock said.

He guessed he gave out close to 100 meals just himself and ran out of dinners fast.

“Preparing and delivering those meals today not only helped those who were hungry, but also helped myself remember all the many things I’m thankful for,” he said.

The Rescue Mission of Salt Lake deployed dozens of volunteers two days before Thanksgiving to hand out to-go meals to on-street campers. Volunteers also provided meals to homeless individuals who lined up outside the Rescue Mission’s shelter at 463 S. 400 West. There, volunteers also offered warm winter clothing, and the Fourth Street Clinic gave out free flu shots.

It was a change from the Rescue Mission’s tradition of an annual Thanksgiving banquet, but one that was more COVID-19 safe. The aim, executive director of Rescue Mission Salt Lake Chris Croswhite said, was to not let COVID-19 cancel Thanksgiving for the homeless.

“It’s Thanksgiving with a twist,” he said, “and the twist is to keep everybody healthy.”

Croswhite said the mission expected to hand out about 500 meals to on-street campers throughout the Salt Lake Valley, and about 700 meals at the curbside pickup.

“So many of our homeless friends are choosing to camp ... so we’re taking full Thanksgiving meals to them,” he said. “Our goal in going out to the camps is just to let them know that we’re there for them.”

While handing out the meals, volunteers also sought to give homeless individuals information about the Rescue Mission’s work and inpatient recovery programs.

“We’re not just giving a handout of the Thanksgiving meal. We’re trying to give them incentive to change their life,” he said. “A lot of times, hope starts with a meal.”

The Rescue Mission’s “ultimate goal,” Croswhite said, is for the people they serve meals to eventually join their inpatient recovery programs. He told of one man, named Steve, who came and ate three times at the Rescue Mission. Several months later Steve was arrested and jailed, Croswhite said.

“And when he was released he was like, ‘I need help’” and he came to the Rescue Mission, Croswhite said, proudly telling of how Steve graduated the program and now has a full-time job in California.

So even if it’s seven months later, people remember, Croswhite said. And when they’re ready for the help, they know where to find it.

“So often that dignity and hope in that relationship will build enough trust that they’ll seek help. If they don’t have that element of dignity, hope and trust they’ll never seek help,” Croswhite said. “So we’re trying to instill that value and build that relationship so we can help our homeless friends who are camping on the street especially as it starts to get cold.”

In addition to Tuesday’s meals, Croswhite said the Rescue Mission of Salt Lake will also be open to serve breakfast, lunch and dinner on Thanksgiving Day — determined to not let COVID-19 stop Thanksgiving for Utah’s most needy.

“We’re the home for the homeless,” he said. “They don’t have anywhere else.”