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Woman living in homeless hotel gets ‘gift of music’ to lift spirits amid COVID-19 isolation

Homeless client thanks county’s front-line workers for ‘random acts of kindness’ during fearful times

SHARE Woman living in homeless hotel gets ‘gift of music’ to lift spirits amid COVID-19 isolation
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LuAnn Miller poses for a photo with her ukulele at Pioneer Park in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 27, 2020. Miller was staying in a homeless resource center when she fell ill with an unknown sickness and was moved to a Salt Lake County isolation center set up to stem the spread of COVID-19. While recovering there she was given the ukulele as a donation from Summerhays Music.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — LuAnn Miller had been staying in the Gail Miller Homeless Resource Center when she said she felt something in her body change.

“It hit my throat so hard,” she said. “It felt like a fire stick — 10 times worse than strep throat.”

As her illness worsened, Miller said she “fell flat on my face.” And before she knew it, she was in an ambulance, being taken to a Salt Lake County quarantine and isolation facility in late April.

At that point, officials didn’t know whether Miller had COVID-19, the virus that was spreading in some homeless facilities in Salt Lake County. But she had symptoms, so they took her to an isolation facility to be safe.

Miller was tested for COVID-19, and as she waited for the results, she said she was blown away by the care at the center, of which county officials have declined to disclose the location and instructed Miller to be careful not to tell the Deseret News.

“I was awestruck how amazing — they were all amazing,” Miller said. “It was very clean, very caring, very sensitive, full of light, the people were just wonderful. The way I was treated, they were wonderful. Classy, wonderful people.”

To Miller, the COVID-19 scare was another twist in her already complicated life. The 64-year-old said she was once a massage therapist working in Park City about 14 years ago, but after becoming a victim of identity theft, her life spiraled downward.

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LuAnn Miller carries her ukulele on her back at Pioneer Park in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 27, 2020. Miller was staying in a homeless resource center when she fell ill with an unknown sickness and was moved to a Salt Lake County isolation center set up to stem the spread of COVID-19. While recovering there she was given the ukulele as a donation from Summerhays Music.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Yet Miller, adamant about staying positive, veers away from conversation about negativity. She said she’d rather focus on the future and her dreams of rebuilding her life again.

Miller said she quickly felt at home at the isolation center, where she said medical staff and other workers doted on her while they monitored her health, from doing her laundry to running to the store to get her vitamins as she healed.

It was at the center that Miller met Brian Porter, a Salt Lake County parks and recreation employee who found himself working at the isolation center after the virus changed his world.

Before the pandemic hit, Porter was a part-time lifeguard. But as COVID-19 turned everything upside down, shuttering recreation centers and pools, he suddenly lost a revenue stream.

So when county officials sent out an email seeking help for COVID-19 response, Porter said he “jumped right in.” He was soon assigned a role as a quarantine and isolation center coordinator, working on the front lines to help people like Miller who needed a place to isolate but had nowhere to go.

Porter said he loved the new gig, where he helped not only homeless patients, but also others who needed a place to isolate, whether it be college students who had been living in dorms, to family members in multigenerational households who didn’t want to risk getting their older parents or grandparents sick.

“It was quite the adaptation,” Porter said, admitting there are parallels to his already being trained to help people struggling to breathe. “It’s right up a lifeguard’s ally.”

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LuAnn Miller, a homeless client, takes a selfie while recovering from an illness in the care of Salt Lake County officials.

LuAnn Miller

As of a couple weeks ago, Salt Lake County had redeployed 200 employees from previous jobs to new roles to assist its COVID-19 response, according to Chloe Morroni, spokeswoman for Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson. It’s been a way to keep the paychecks rolling while filling need in the county.

Meeting Miller, Porter said, was “refreshing” because of her positive attitude about her situation. Wanting to do something special for her, Porter and other center staff members asked Miller if there was anything she’d like to help her pass the time as she recovered, or if there was anything she was missing in her life.

Miller, who learned how to play the piano and the guitar when she was younger, told Porter she’d like “any way to make music. It would really help the time go by.”

“When I hear music,” she said, “it brightens me up.”

So county staffers called Cris Behrens, general manager at Summerhays Music, to see if he had any ideas. Told of Miller’s background with pianos and guitars, Behrens figured she’d be able to apply the same skills to a new instrument.

He decided to donate a $400, bright red ukulele to Miller.

“It was about getting an instrument in her hand, not just to give her something to do, but to allow her to escape,” Behrens said. “That’s what the love of music is all about — being able to express yourself and having a place to escape to.”

Especially amid the often solitary times of the pandemic, Behrens said “the gift of music” has become increasingly important, as socialization and time with others has become more challenging. Music can help people not only stay sane, but heal.

“Music affects the mind, body and soul,” he said. “So it was for LuAnn to be able to learn a musical instrument during this time and use that as her medicine to speed up the recovery.”

The day Porter planned to bring the ukulele to Miller, she was about to get the news she would be moved out of the quarantine center and into another facility, the hotel Salt Lake County had contracted with to house high-risk homeless people.

County officials have also refused to disclose the location and owner of that hotel, and they instructed Miller also to keep it hidden.

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LuAnn Miller poses for a photo with her ukulele at Pioneer Park in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 27, 2020. Miller was staying in a homeless resource center when she fell ill with an unknown sickness and was moved to a Salt Lake County isolation center set up to stem the spread of COVID-19. While recovering there she was given the ukulele as a donation from Summerhays Music.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Miller never tested positive for COVID-19, according to county officials, but she said she felt oddly sick for weeks, and they took care of her while she recovered. It’s still not clear what she came down with. But she stayed at the county isolation facility until she was cleared to move into the county’s homeless hotel, reserved for homeless clients who are “high risk” for COVID-19, who are older or with underlying health conditions.

But when Miller was to be moved to that hotel, she didn’t want to go.

“I started to cry,” she said. “I said, ‘I don’t want to leave you guys.’”

Later, as she was settling into her new hotel room, feeling embarrassed for getting emotional, Miller called staff at the isolation center to apologize.

In turn, Miller said they told her, “We’re bringing you something.”

Miller said she was blown away by present.

“I cried when I opened it,” she said. “It was an honor. It’s beautiful.”

For a while after she moved into the hotel room, Miller said she was too sick to play her new ukulele.

“But it sat there by my bedside,” she said, “like a best friend waiting for me to get well.”

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LuAnn Miller, a homeless client, takes a selfie while recovering from an illness in the care of Salt Lake County officials.

LuAnn Miller

Miller, sitting in the shade of a tree at Pioneer Park on a recent day in Salt Lake City, said she felt much better from whatever sickness she had caught. She strummed the ukulele shyly, explaining she was still learning how to play.

As she chatted with a reporter — repeatedly expressing gratitude for county officials, Summerhays, her hope for her future, and her dream to someday return the “random acts of kindness” she experienced at the county facilities — she at one point broke out into song and swayed with the ukulele.

“‘And I think to myself,’” she sang, “‘What a wonderful world.’”