Cradling a paper coffee cup between his two hands, Jason Randall, 49, became tearful when he described his first night in Salt Lake City.
"It was more than terrible ... horrific," Randall said.
A wool blanket sat on the empty chair next to him, which he smoothed over for a moment while his tears subsided. Randall grew up in the Bronx and has traveled across the United States, he said. Most recently he lived in Denver before buying a bus ticket and traveling to Salt Lake City on Sunday night, where he later stayed in a temporary winter overflow shelter.
"I guess I'm looking for a place to restart and get it together," he said.
The process of restarting can be difficult when experiencing homelessness, especially when one doesn't have access to their ID or birth certificate. Without identification, the process of finding a job, residence or social services can become complicated.
Those experiencing homelessness need a variety of resources but can have difficulty accessing them, according to the Larry H. Miller and Gail Miller Family Foundation. The foundation and service providers recognize that while meeting basic needs like hunger is vital, so is continued access to resources.
The Larry H. Miller and Gail Miller Family Foundation and the Larry H. Miller Company partnered with Salt Lake County on Monday to provide meals and a wide range of services in a Driven to Assist: Season of Service event.
"Our hope is that they'll leave not only with a warm meal, but with a greater measure of hope," said Steve Starks, CEO of the Larry H. Miller Company. "I think this is an opportunity to say, in addition to the money that the foundation gives, this is an opportunity to be hands-on and proximate with people. And that's a blessing for all of us that get to serve and and look people in the eyes and wish them happy Thanksgiving, to tell them that we love them, that there are brighter days ahead."
The partnership between the foundation and Salt Lake County allowed the event to be moved into the Salt Palace Convention Center, making space for partners and services. The event drew approximately 200 volunteers who served over 3,000 meals to those who are homeless or food insecure.
Several organizations and nonprofits provided an array of services at the event Monday, including COVID-19 and flu vaccinations; screenings for diabetes and other wellness resources; mental health resources; feminine hygiene kits; dental cleaning; and pet vaccinations and supplies.
The groups also offered clothing items, community resources, complimentary transit passes and even access to criminal record expungement help.
"I'm looking to work with some of these agencies to get headed back in the right direction," said Randall, explaining that he hopes for help getting a Social Security card and driver's license.
The event drew several elected officials who served a Thanksgiving meal of ham, chicken, potatoes, gravy, stuffing, vegetables, dinner rolls and butter, and pie and bread pudding to the community.
"I'm so focused on policy and working on kind of global solutions, funding solutions, building infrastructure to address the need housing, health care, all those services — but to actually be able to meet people one-on-one, the first thing that you learn is people are people and there's been a challenging road that is often trauma in people's lives that led them to a difficult situation," said Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson.
"So to be able to see people today, to talk to them, to serve them a meal, is heartwarming to me personally."
While the event provided a wide variety of resources, some providers expressed frustration that the event wasn't accessible to the entire community.
"After COVID and with mental illness and things like that, people are still kind of untrusting in this community and they're still isolating," said Pastor Shawn Clay of the Salt Lake City Mission. "The need is still there. The need has not gone anywhere. It's just because of abatements and things like that people are so spread out throughout the valley, and it's so hard to reach our clients and get information to them that we're doing things like this."