A giving heart: Providing housing first helps homeless the most

Published: Saturday, Nov. 27 2010 9:00 p.m. MST

Angela Christiansen reads to her daughters, Victoria, Hanna, Julia and Evelyn, before bed in their room at the St. Anne's Center in Ogden.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Editor's note: This is the first part of a Deseret News series that examines how Utahns are empowering our poor in three areas: homelessness, education and health care.

OGDEN — The kitchen of the triplex is a disaster at the moment as the Christiansen girls — Victoria 9, Evelyn, 7, Julia, 6, and even baby Hanna, 4 — stir up breakfast to "surprise" their mom and dad.

They are making waffles and their mom, Angie, is smiling as the sweet smell wafts through the three-bedroom apartment where they've just moved. She's crying a little, too. But they are tears of joy. The family is cooking their own meal in their own space and they are together.

When they lived in St. Anne's Center homeless shelter not far from here, Angie's husband Victor had to leave them every night to sleep in the men's unit, one floor below. They couldn't cook meals, decide their own hours, or even enjoy the simple pleasure of making a breakfast mess and then cleaning it up.

As the girls cook, a puppy follows Angie from room to room. Avery is one-fourth collie, three-fourths lab and 100 percent symbolic. The little dog is Angie's declaration that this family will become self-sufficient — whatever is asked, whatever will work, whatever it takes. Though the odds sometimes seem stacked against them, on this gray, snow-streaked November day, she believes it.

They were homeless for months and it is too soon to declare their problems solved, though they have case managers and helping hands galore. Homelessness is a complex world with complicated solutions that drive Mormon and Catholic, Presbyterian and Muslim, believer and agnostic to work side by side to mend broken lives. There are government employees and nonprofit agencies, clergy and bean counters and visionaries all trying, together, on this one issue. And average Joes and Janes, as well, whose gift of time or cash or just stuff is as central to solving homelessness as any massive government grant.

You can look at homelessness in Utah a number of ways.

There's the data-rich view: About a half-percent of the state's population is homeless; that's 15,642 individuals at some point in 2010. Roughly 5 percent stay that way for a very long time, while most are passing through a really bumpy spell, but with help won't be there too long. The Utah Office of Education says 1 in 50 or 11,883 Utah school kids are homeless. That's a five-year high, according to the 2010 Comprehensive Report on Homelessness.

Plop them down among the numbers and you'll see that the Christiansen family is actually quite "trendy." Not only are they a homeless family — that's the fastest-growing segment of homelessness — but Victor, 34, battles some type of mental illness that has made things difficult for an otherwise intelligent man. Mental illness is a bit of a theme in the general homeless population, affecting at least 20 percent of those who are homeless. He's prone to panic attacks and anxiety and has been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. There may be other issues; mental health experts are exploring it with him.

But he's also loving and loyal as can be and his wife calls him a "very good daddy" and her best friend.

She's trendy, too. Angie Christiansen, 32, has a couple of debilitating medical conditions including Crohn's disease and fibromyalgia that hospitalize her several times a year. Her illness was the beginning of their slide; she was a nurse's aide going to school in preparation for a career as a nurse when she got sick. He took too much time from work caring for the girls and helping her. He lost his IT job. Since he had become the primary caregiver, being separated at the shelter was especially hard for this family.

And like 82 percent of the state's homeless population, they live on the Wasatch Front, where most homeless are. They have bounced between Salt Lake and Weber counties. Grand and San Juan counties have lower numbers but the highest concentration of homeless in Utah.

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