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Lois M. Collins: Needs of homeless continue long after Christmas

Published: Thursday, Dec. 23 2010 12:00 a.m. MST

When a woman who introduces herself as Edie talks about her childhood, she talks about the hunger.

She's successful today, but that is a victory sprung from an unlikely background. During part of her elementary school years, her family had no place of their own. They lived instead, she tells me, with a succession of friends and relatives, in their car, in shelter, even outdoors a couple of times.

It was just the three of them: Edie, her little brother and her dad. Her mother died when she was still a toddler, not long after her brother was born.

She won't be taking her future children to see where she grew up: There's no one place that sticks out in a kaleidoscope of moving around. Many of the details now seem fuzzy. But she remembers that pain in her stomach from never having quite enough to eat. It was the constant of her childhood, she says.

What seemed abnormally normal to her at the time now looks very different through the lens of a genuinely more ordinary life.

It would be years before she recognized that her dad was mentally ill. What she knew, though, was that he was an intelligent and loving man who was always just one good break away from settling his little family into a big house on a hill somewhere where they could play on their own swing set, toss treats to their very own dog and attend the same school two years or more in a row.

They talked about that future house so many times she can picture it in her head, she says, more real in some ways than the succession of places the family actually occupied.

She called the newspaper to tell her story Wednesday morning because the night before she'd gone with friends to a vigil in Pioneer Park.

It was a gathering to remember more than 50 homeless individuals who died this year, some on the streets, some in shelter, a few in transitional homes.

Years ago, while visiting homeless camps along the Jordan River for an article, I heard homeless advocates tell me that people who are chronically homeless lose years of potential life, the months and sometimes decades shaved off on the rough edges of hunger, poverty, lack of consistent and preventive health care, poor choices, bad breaks, risky decisions, disease or sometimes violence.

People who provide services and aid for those who are homeless know that these days leading up to Christmas provide some of the best opportunities for change, because it is right now that larger number of people are at their giving best, providing a needed financial boost and tangible goods to programs that serve some of the poorest people in the state.

Many of the needs are absolutely urgent, but so basic and simple that most people don't realize how easy it would be to help. The Road Home, the homeless shelter in Salt Lake City, for instance, lists socks, coats and jackets, hats and gloves, hand warmers, bath towels, pillows, underwear, blankets and diapers as the items it needs most.

St. Anne's in Ogden needs hygiene products like toothpaste and toilet paper, deodorant and disposable razors, as well as meat and cleaning supplies.

Every shelter and every outreach program that serves a homeless population will tell you the desperate in-kind needs are really that simple. They also struggle, though, to raise the funds to sustain the programs in other months.

When the signs of the seasonal celebrations have been packed away for yet another year in the homes of those of us fortunate enough to have one, the needs will go on. They can't be folded up neatly in boxes and stored on a shelf until another season of giving rolls around.

"I remember being hungry and sometimes cold," Edie tells me.

Deseret News staff writer Lois M. Collins may be reached by e-mail at lois@desnews.com. Follow her on Twitter at loisco.

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