A little boy, desperately tugging on the pant leg of a shelter worker, asked in amazement if the man in the red suit really was Santa Claus come to visit.

Yes, he was assured.

"I didn't think he'd find us here."

The boy's family, among an estimated 4,500 Utahns without a place to call home, didn't expect to find itself at the Road Home, either.

"It takes a kid to show you that snapshot into how lonely, how afraid a child must be who is in the throes of homelessness — a fear that wouldn't even occur to us," said Matt Minkevitch, who runs the Road Home and has been on the front lines helping the homeless since the mid-1980s.

On any given night this time of year, his shelter in Salt Lake City takes in about 800 people, more than 100 of them children. One day this past week, for example, 745 people stayed overnight; 123 were children.

Most homeless will resort to shelters, but some stay on the streets, in cars or set up camps in the wooded outskirts of towns, hoping to avoid police detection.

But more often these days, the homeless are undetected by managing to double, triple- or even quadruple-up with other families.

That's what Rebecca Garcia did until she became one of the residents of the new LifeStart Village in Midvale.

People don't realize the homeless don't fit the stereotype, said Garcia, a mother of four who had been living with her brother. "I don't think people realize what really puts other people in this situation or how badly the homeless want to be out of it."

While it may be easy for some people to hold the problem of homelessness at a distance, Minkevitch said, "the reality of today's society is that more and more its homeless population reflects people who are likely to be brothers, sisters, cousins and uncles — someone we know as family or neighbors."

Stepping stones

Downward economic forces have clearly been at work the past two years, and the ripple effect is first felt by the economically marginal who are also the slowest to recover when things turn around, said Gov. Olene Walker, state government's leading homeless advocate and champion of affordable housing for the working poor through a trust fund that bears her name.

Places like LifeStart, which not only gives struggling single parents a place to stay, also gives them community, training and a real path back, Walker said at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Midvale site in late October.

"We not only need to shelter, we need projects that will truly restore self-reliance and self-esteem," Walker said, adding that many people just need a stepping stone back into life.

While many of Utah's homeless battle substance abuse or mental illness, key problems that contribute to their desolate situation, a sizable portion of Utah's homeless population are those who are simply victims of poverty, pushed out because of lost jobs and the bills and eviction notices that follow, say Walker and other advocates and community service agency managers.

"The perception is that homeless people are dangerous and violent because bad people often bury themselves easily in the homeless ranks," says Philip Arena, development director for the Salt Lake City Mission.

"There's the idea that every single homeless person is a drug addict," Arena said. "But some are just lonely people out there for different reasons. They're quite sober but just floating around."

Constant demand

Cold weather accentuates what is already a constant demand for help that is continuing to grow each year.

On Nov. 1, the agency, formerly known as Travelers' Aid, opened its overflow shelter in Midvale. It also rents floor space from St. Vincent de Paul so people can sleep there.

Not far away, men at the Rescue Mission of Salt Lake sleep on the chapel floor if the beds in the dormitory are filled.

And the Salt Lake Interfaith Hospitality Network has area churches opening their doors to the homeless, furnishing overnight lodging and hot meals to families.

Glenn Bailey runs the Crossroads Urban Center, which operates the state's busiest food pantry and also has a thrift store.

The center has never been busier.

"We're seeing more and more people with less than ever before," Bailey said.

He estimates 25 percent of his customers are homeless, which he describes as a significant increase over previous years.

Overall, business has gone up steadily for the past three years, with September setting the record since the center first opened in 1966.

In November, for example, the food pantry served more than 1,300 families — or more than 3,300 people. In September, it was at 1,600 families with 4,086 people.

Bailey said a can of food helps struggling families put one more dollar toward rent — a payment that can mean the difference between housing and homelessness.

"We were experiencing increases even when the economy was strong. Now that it has gone south, we have more and more people with no or little income at all."

New faces

Jeff St. Romaine, president and CEO of Volunteers of America Utah, agrees.

"It often just takes one thing to knock these families into this whole other world," St. Romaine said.

Homelessness has become a social dilemma that requires only one common denominator — poverty.

"The face of homelessness has changed. It used to be single men. We see youth, we see women with children, we see families," St. Romaine said. "Anytime you talk about the homeless, it is not this one group. It has changed."

Because of the change, the duration of homelessness has also taken on a new dynamic.

"More than half of the people who come here stay less than a month and move on — and the vast majority never come back. They are able to overcome whatever has happened and move on with their lives."

The impression by some people, he concedes, can be starkly different because there is such a large concentration of services in a two-block area near Rio Grande Street.

"There is such a fixed location that anybody can drive by and see these individuals standing outside. I think people may gravitate to the mis-impression that it is the same folks, in the same spot, and they are always here. But it's a constantly changing group."

Comment on this story Minkevitch says the shelter routinely has a number of single men who won't be there long and, "if there were more alternatives in the community, they would not be here at all."


E-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com