Confronting Homelessness in Utah and abroad

2 11 2015

I went out for a run today. The weather is getting colder in Salt Lake these days as just about any day now temperatures will drop to the normal being between 20-40 degrees. I am super stoked because that means snowboarding, skiing, and hockey will be on the horizon as activities for me but it is also sad as the trails freeze up and I put the tennis racket down. On this particular day, I was reveling in the fact that this might be one of my last real good trail runs for about 6 months.

I have taken a more adventurous route lately when trail running. I run along the ridge/mountain line up above the University of Utah. This view overlooks the valley, the city, all the surrounding mountains, and there are many trails leading east up into the crazy steep Wasatch mountain range. I chose a path I’d never been on today and up and up it went. Talk about a heart work out. As long as my knees and an inner thigh injury I suffered in the past hold up I can run for hours up there. I love the exhausted, mountain running, feeling-high from huffing and puffing, that results from these types of outings. I blame my upbringing where most of my time was spent playing sports. I yearn for the complete gasping exhaustion of physical exertion.

About midway up the treacherous mountain I encountered a few tents that were camped out. People camping maybe? As I ran closer, the tents quickly zipped up and I took a route away from them. As my trail soon ended in a dead end, I had to turn back around. As I ventured back a man had emerged from his tent and was nervously standing in the middle of the path. I said hi and he asked if I was having a good time snooping around. I said, no, and that I was just passing through on the trail and I asked very quickly if this was a good spot to camp. He sort of laughed and said, “Camping! I’ve been ‘camping’ pretty much straight for the last 10 years.”

What followed was about a forty-five minute conversation that was one of the most informative, enlightening conversations I’ve ever had on homelessness and social issues in general. In a perfect world, this man would have held some well paid urban position and been some sort of director in charge of making sure people could combat living on the street. He was charismatic, knowledgeable, caring, had personal experience, and had well thought out and wonderful solutions for what would work keeping people out of homelessness. He mentioned that he doesn’t really get to talk to people much because a lot of the people who happen upon his tent harass him excessively by throwing rocks at his tent or shoot guns in the air by his tent or verbally abuse him for being homeless. Hence was the reason why he zipped up so quickly when I came running his way.

The man chose not to live in the homeless shelter provided by Salt Lake City for many reasons. It was simply a disgusting place to live. There was rampant Tuberculosis, athlete’s foot, herpes, hepatitis, and other common diseases that were hard not to catch if you casually lived there. He couldn’t afford treatment for if he came down with any one of these ailments and it was pretty much a sure thing you would end up with something. The shelter and surrounding neighborhood was dramatically unsafe as there were drug dealers trying to hustle you with cheaply made, addictive drugs that could so easily help pass the time to someone caught in the doldrums of homeless life. It was almost too easy for some to delve into the “I’m feeling good in the moment” addictive drug world, especially when centered around the environment of the shelter and homelessness and its steep and high hurdles to make it out. There were dangerous gangs who claimed turf and would be extremely confrontational and the police were also extremely aggressive and just like another gang who would come along and claim turf and physically abuse people or arrest those who did not listen to them. The homeless shelter was a base for disease, drugs, crime, intimidation, physical abuse, and nothing that would help anyone get out of living on the streets. Actually, it would produce the opposite effect and claim the lives of many who found themselves forever in the life cycles of the shelter. The man compared the corrupt lifestyle of the homeless shelter to that of a prison.

Other than the nasty living conditions at the shelter there were three main reasons the man gave for what creates homelessness. About 25% of people in the shelters were addicted to drugs and were either in and out of jail or stuck with no resources to help them transition away from their addictions. About another 25% had severe mental problems that greatly handicapped them and without resources would never see a world outside of being homeless as their mental problems were astoundingly overwhelming and needed attention first and foremost. But the big reason for most of the homeless problem is really quite simple. About 50% of the people inside the shelter were completely normal/decent people who fell on rough times and ended up in the street and didn’t have severe mental problems and were not addicted to drugs. These individuals simply couldn’t find a job because they had been homeless for either too long or just couldn’t compete with people who weren’t homeless for the same low paying middle to working class jobs. As each year passed this large group of about 50% kept getting farther and farther behind and the opinion of this particular man was that there needs to be resources for these people to stay trained and to be able to compete fairly for jobs with people who were not homeless. Who, honestly, is going to hire a homeless individual compared to someone who isn’t? Inevitably the hole keeps getting deeper to get out of the longer you spend being homeless. That pretty much is a statistical fact. The man estimated that most people need access to these resources in order to combat their homelessness. There is a lot of need there as with anyone transitioning from problems into a better version of their life and these resources need to be made available for years for people who will absolutely use them. Not having these resources makes the problem fester and only harder on those most in need.

With all the resources our society spends on war or not taxing the rich or paying for political campaigns or paying for luxurious items, etc. the people who are in the most need do not get hired for jobs. The man offered a plan that the government should consider having tax incentives/subsidies given to a business who chooses to hire a homeless person. The relationship between business and government need to come together to both recognize they have a mutual interest in people not being homeless. Just people getting low paying jobs would seem to solve about half the homeless problem. Most homeless individuals are decent people, normal people. It is all too common for people to point fingers at those on the streets and claim how awful they are for allowing that to happen to their lives. However, those people were children once and most likely grew up in non-supportive, abusive families or drug addiction households or any other type of situation that was beyond their control. EVERYONE was a child once and whatever happens in childhood can fester to easily lead to incredibly good things for your adult life or incredibly unfortunate things. Nobody would blame children outright so why would we blame adults? Adults are just bigger children. Regardless, the situation reminds me of how Donald Trump views people coming across the border into the U.S. “They are all rapists even though some, I’m sure, are good people.” No, Mr. Trump, it really is the other way around. Most are good people and some inevitably, no matter what human population you’re apart of, will commit crimes against others. So many of us take too similar of a stance as Mr. Trump when it comes to the homeless, whether it be direct aggression or passive aggression. We don’t think these people are human beings but most of them are pretty much just like us.

The man prided himself on his camping skills and his ability to live cleanly and effectively in a tent. His setup was extremely resourceful and given a tent, a small camping stove, and a nice all weather sleeping bag he was able to live more sustainably than most people. He was very disappointed in Salt Lake City’s decision to crack down on people living in tents. He understood it for people who were leaving trash around and shitting on the sidewalk and living inharmoniously with nature and, yes, he believes those people should not be allowed to camp, but, he mentioned it is very easy to see who is camping responsibly vs. who isn’t. He was the type of guy that should have led an environmentally sustainable, camping class. I was shown his setup and coming from an expert survival camper it was very practical and efficient with well thought out plans for what to do with all garbage and waste. If others on the streets had his knowledge and skills than so many more would be able to escape the awful confines of the homeless shelter. If most people in general had his skills than our environment would be in a much better state. Again, the city and its draconian measures who were against tents seemed very intent to keep people in the cycle of poverty at the shelter. An easy fix there if you ask me.

Homelessness has been on my mind over the last 6 months to a year, or rather, people that find themselves in situations that are out of their control and thus easily lead to extreme hardships; homelessness is one of these hardships. Even though I sort of hate to admit this, because I hate identifying with anything that is Catholic, I was moved by the Pope when he came to Washington, D.C. earlier this year. He refused to have dinner with the high and mighty government officials saying he already had plans with the poor on the streets. He does these kind of things often and we all can take a lesson from someone acting like this. I’ve been on the verge of putting my wellness skills out on craigslist for free for anyone who inquired or even just going down to the homeless shelter and wandering around trying to get to know people and what they’re going through. I know I just need to act in order to see if I can make things better but I’ve been stuck in the mindset of wondering what would be of best use. Why is it so hard to figure out how to help people sometimes? It seems like there are very few resources in general whether it is for the people in need or for individuals who want to help. Does it really take an individual acting out alone in order to bring the change they want to see in the world? I guess so.

The conversation went on with my new friend and I could tell he didn’t want it to end. He mentioned he doesn’t get the chance to talk to too many people and he had SO much to say and much insight to give. He truly was a very educated man as we talked about the history of various civilizations and what makes them come crashing down and how the U.S. seems about ready to pop and the different social movements going on vs the importance of external threats and how countries like Russia and China are becoming more militarily a threat. He knew what was happening in the presidential races. He was well read and had been through a life of addiction and overcame and was living a clean existence. He did mention that he was fortunate enough for the food stamp program. With everything else that was going on in his life he did have access to food (although it was all caned and processed foods).   However, he was mad at the city and especially the Mormon church for doing more to help homeless populations. The LDS temple in downtown Salt Lake is an immaculate part of town and only a few blocks away the wild jungle living of the homeless shelter festers. Not that it is all the Mormons fault but given how wealthy the church is and how powerful they are in the state why doesn’t the church do more to counteract the problems of homelessness? Isn’t helping the poor something that is a major tenet of the religion? Wouldn’t it be nice if the LDS church was known for eradicating homelessness in Utah vs. other things it is commonly know for such as standing against homosexual lifestyles or other narrow minded views they promote? And with the city, why aren’t there better policies put into check to help out it’s citizens? Are we really as a culture only focused on gentrifying neighborhoods and bringing citizens from afar into our cities who open coffee shops and swank restaurants and work in tech industry? Societies ills are right there starring at us in the face within our own communities. Are we really too good for them? Are we really just going to not put resources towards them and say oh well, what’s on TV? It disappoints me at times at how easy it is for all of us to delve into mindlessness on matters as opposed to being mindful about whatever it is that we approach each day. Whatever is the reason for why we act the way we do, it’s working as most of us don’t care and do nothing about it, out of sight out of mind. I’ll worry about being homeless when I’m homeless. Well the vast majority of us in this country are either not working or working in full time jobs that still keep us in poverty like conditions. It’s happened ever so slowly, getting worse each year and becoming the norm. Do we in fact notice the slow march of this process and how close many of us are to something like homelessness?

I left the man and said goodbye. I ran back down the trail and he walked back to his tent. I couldn’t help but realize how different our lives were, yet how similar. If I had met that guy in a coffee shop or at a community meeting I would have instantly felt a connection and a desire to keep in touch and possibly work together. I still felt the connection but it was different. How do I go about helping this man? Do I simply just go up to the mountains again to chat and/or to see if he’s alright? What is the block I’m feeling where I’m at a loss for how to help him? I want to infrastructurally make a difference and I suppose that could lead to me talking to the community leaders I know and trying to instill change that way. I guess this is the dilemma we all face. I’m at home now and comfortable. The man is on the mountain somewhere as it is going to be 40 degrees tonight with a storm approaching for the next few days. I can see why people just turn on the TV or do whatever else that distracts them from thinking about things that matter. What would life be like if we actually kept a focus on what mattered? I struggle with what to do. How will we all learn to push forth for doing good things despite the powers that be that have set us up to be so far apart? Looking towards society for a solution doesn’t always lead us to where we want to go. If no one else is doing anything about it does that mean it isn’t important? I suppose an individual acting alone needs to be the change they want to see in the world. It can be an intimidating and overwhelming thing to think about.

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