SALT LAKE CITY — I see community advocate Pamela Atkinson in Terminal Two at the Salt Lake City International Airport. She is on her way to a conference in St. George and is pulling a small suitcase with wheels. I greet her and we find a couple seats in an alcove area where I pull out a manila file folder with printouts of photographs of homeless people taken between 1982 and 2009.
Atkinson says she has been working with homeless people in the Salt Lake area since about 1987. I called her earlier in the day while she was packing for her trip to St. George for the Utah Coalition Against Pornography's regional conference on "Protecting Children and Families from Pornography and Other Harmful Materials." Photo historian Ron Fox had selected a sampling of photographs of homeless people from the Deseret News photo archive for our weekly historical photo feature and I wanted Atkinson to give her thoughts and impressions about how homelessness had changed over the past 28 years.
Atkinson had offered to stop by the Triad Center on her way to the airport, but to make it easier, I met her right before her flight.
The first photograph, from April 1982, is of a transient shelter built in a hole in the ground. "Oh yes," Atkinson says. "Many of our homeless friends are very creative — particularly in the winter when they want to get in out of the cold. And they will gather all kinds of cardboard and wood, crates — they'll haul in anything … that will keep them warm."
I hand her the next photograph. It shows the beds at the first night at "The Shelter Project" in December 1982. "We've progressed from head-to-foot beds into bunk beds because you can get far more people in." She says these beds look too close together.
The next photograph has a doctor listening to a child taking deep breaths in 1984. Atkinson remembers having doctors and nurse practitioners examine homeless people at a trailer clinic once a week. "And that was the only health care that was available for homeless people at that time," she says. "It was before the Road Home shelter was built."
A December 1985 photo shows homeless men coming through a line for a holiday dinner. "There wasn't a lot of room to serve these big meals," she says. She pauses and points to a man with a beard and a knit cap: "I recognize this man. He's passed on now. I remember seeing him around in the late 1980s." She doesn't mention his name.
A photo from 1986 shows Jennie Dudley serving breakfast to homeless people under the 400 South viaduct. Dudley had begun the Sunday breakfasts in October 1985. "Jennie Dudley is still doing this," Atkinson says — although the location has moved. "She is still serving meals every Sunday, and as she says, she depends upon the Lord to send food and volunteers."
Children play on top of broken appliances in a December 1986 photograph. Atkinson recognizes the place as being outside the trailer that held the clinic. "Not the most ideal circumstances at all."
A photo taken a few days later shows a man lying on the ground inside a building. "So many people would pass out like this," she says. "What we teach people to do if they are outside, is to get in their sleeping bags after they've drunk half the bottle and then zip up the bag and put on their hat and gloves so they don't freeze."
There is a photo of Mayor Palmer DePaulis speaking with someone at a 1988 "Homeless Not Helpless" meeting — around the time Traveler's Aid, now The Road Home, began in Salt Lake City. Another photo is of Santa bringing gifts to children in July 1988. Homeless people protest about a program in a September 1988 photograph. There is a photograph of homeless men watching television at a shelter in 1989.
An April 1989 photograph has a man in front of a dugout. His dog is by him. "There are certain groups of men who really prize their freedom, they don't want to come into the shelter for a variety of reasons and in this instance it's because of his dogs," Atkinson says. "For many of our homeless friends this was the only love they got, from their dogs, and it was mutual. The wonderful thing about when you see dogs with homeless people, you know that dogs love unconditionally. They never judge people and they just accept them as to who they are. They never, for instance, say, 'Oh, I don't want to be your dog. You're homeless.' … I've seen animals, particularly dogs, turn homeless people's lives around."
A photo from 1990 shows a man holding a "Will Work For Food" sign. Atkinson says that when she sees a person with a sign like this, she asks them what they need money for, what their situation is and whether there is someone else in their family who could help. "Sometimes they are mentally ill, sometimes there is drug addiction, sometimes they are alcoholic, but sometimes they are really quite genuine and we can refer them to Job Services."
In a Dec. 24, 1990 photograph, a little boy gives money to a woman. The woman is on the ground in freezing weather and is holding a sign saying she is pregnant and stranded. Atkinson says how important it is to teach children to help, but also that in this situation she would step in to make sure the woman, if she was pregnant, had proper medical care.
The rest of the photographs are more recent — including one of Atkinson speaking as the Fourth Street Clinic when it was named in her honor in 2003.Comment on this story
Since she began helping the homeless in the late 1980s, Atkinson says that she has seen more homeless families with children under 6 years old. There are also fewer places left for the homeless to camp. In the past the emphasis was to get people into treatment. Now the emphasis, she says, is to first get them into housing. After they have a place of their own, good things can begin to happen. "In the last three years we have taken over 500 people, chronically homeless people, families and individuals, off the streets. They are in their own apartments. We weren't talking about that back in the 1980s."
The photographs are done now. Atkinson must catch her plane. There is work to do.