Pamela Atkinson had no indoor plumbing in the London apartment where slept heel-to-head with her two sisters. Her father gambled away whatever money he had, and Atkinson and her four siblings would often go hungry.

Now, decades later, she says “it seems ludicrous” to be standing alongside Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, advocating for a state fund that bears her name — in a building that also bears her name.

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“That’s part of the Utah dream and part of the American dream I’m glad to be a part of,” she said Tuesday.

When Utahns file their taxes this year, they’ll notice an option under the “voluntary contributions” line — The Pamela Atkinson Homeless Account.

Money donated to the account will be distributed across the state to agencies that provide emergency services, soup kitchens, day centers, case management and housing services. Donations can also be made on the state’s website.

Even the smallest amount could make a difference. Still, “we don’t mind how many zeros you add,” Atkinson said to the tune of laughter.

“Just imagine making a difference in people’s lives, because you cared enough and you gave some dollars to this fund,” she said.

Pamela Atkinson and Gov. Spencer Cox look at a Pamela’s Place Apartments studio during a press conference held to encourage Utahns to donate to the Pamela Atkinson Homeless Trust Fund in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

The longtime homeless advocate — who former Gov. Gary Herbert once compared to Mother Teresa — toured Pamela’s Place Apartments on Salt Lake City’s westside alongside Cox on Tuesday.

Finished in September 2020 and funded in part by the Pamela Atkinson Homeless Account, the five-story building functions as a permanent supportive housing complex for those in need, with a specific focus on helping people with disabilities. It sits on a narrow lot on 500 West, and offers 100 units of affordable housing.

Cox and Atkinson started the day stacking novels on the lobby’s bookshelf, talking with residents who had experienced homelessness before going upstairs to tour the apartments.

“I love the fact that the Church of Jesus Christ donates these beds ... they’re really very comfortable,” Atkinson said, leaning on the wooden bed frame, before she and the governor finished the tour at the building’s medical facility.

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A life of small miracles

The medical facility offers a range of services, from basic health care to behavioral health. Down the hall is a food pantry lined with cans of soup, macaroni and cheese, cereal and more. Residents also have access to counseling, a psychiatrist and 24/7 care, rounding out a facility well positioned to guide people previously experiencing homelessness on an upward trajectory.

“What I love about this place is the connection that it brings people, and I love the conversation we were able to have with some of the residents here today and hear their stories, and to understand the impact that this community and this place has on them and their identity and their purpose,” said Cox. “... all those things are so important to making people whole.”

Alma Bennett, Pamela’s Place Apartments resident, talks to Utah Gov. Spencer Cox at a press conference.
Alma Bennett, Pamela’s Place Apartments resident, talks to Gov. Spencer Cox at a press conference held to encourage Utahns to donate to the Pamela Atkinson Homeless Trust Fund at Pamela’s Place Apartments in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

One of the residents Cox spoke with is Alma Bennett, a resident of Pamela’s Place for over one year. Bennett had lived at the Road Home shelter, then the Geraldine E. King Women’s Resource Center before finding an apartment at Pamela’s Place. Bennett dubbed the Road Home “the wild wild West,” though she said she always felt safe at both of the shelters she called home for years.

But Pamela’s Place? “It’s a blessing,” she said. “Everybody that I’ve talked to, we all feel blessed.”

“The difference is that in my apartment, when I walk through the door and close it, if there’s the drama or anything like that on the other side, I don’t have to bring it in,” Bennett said.

The building at first faced an uphill battle. The lot it sits on is narrow and substandard, and the project faced criticism from people who said lumping 100 low-income units into one building would fail, said Daniel Nackerman, the Salt Lake Housing Authority’s executive director.

“People said, and this is one of my pet peeves, that we couldn’t get people off the street because they don’t want to get off the street. Well, of course they do. And we did,” said Nackerman, who called Atkinson “one of the most powerful and effective homeless response leaders in the world.”

“Don’t tell Pamela ‘we can’t,’” he said. “Because she will.”