Outreach workers provide supplies, moral support to people who won't come in from cold
Ravell Call, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Even before snow dumped on the Salt Lake Valley and the bitter cold set in, Kathy Malin's emotional winter was taking its toll.
For her, home is an older model RV parked under an overpass and along train tracks. Police have contacted Malin numerous times because they want her to move it, but it now has a flat tire and expired license plates.
Even if she could move the RV, it's unclear where she would go.
"I haven't had a job since 2010. I've sold nearly everything I own," she said.
On top of everything else, Malin is sick. An infection has settled in her back, and it's been exacerbated by the cold snap.
When the Volunteers of America-Utah homeless outreach van pulled up Monday afternoon, she cried out, "Are you here to help?"
When outreach worker Sanela Piragic answered in the affirmative, Malin began to weep.
"We need everything," she said, tears rolling down her face.
Piragic pulls a warm winter coat from the van. Larry Mullin, also an outreach worker, gives handwarmers to Malin's son, JJ.
Piragic and Mullin make repeated trips to the outreach van to give Malin and her son a sleeping bag, blanket, canned food and dry dog food for their two dogs. The supplies will help them endure another frigid night, but what Malin needs most is medical attention.
Piragic calls the Fourth Street Clinic to make an appointment for Malin at 3 p.m., explaining that she and Mullin will return in an hour to drive her to the clinic.
In the meantime, Mullin and Piragic stop to check in with David Neal, a homeless veteran who is panhandling near an off-ramp into the city. Neal lives in a tent in a field behind a nonprofit agency. The owner of the property has given him permission to live there, as long as he keeps things tidy.
Neal said he panhandles "to get enough money to buy propane."
His approach? A cardboard sign that says, "Too ugly to be a prostitute."
"It doesn't work too well on Sundays," he said, laughing.
Asked if he needs anything, Neal tugs on the broken zipper of his coat. The coat also sports a large burn hole, evidence of a fire in camp that flashed, also scorching his head.
Mullin tells him about a coat he has in the van. It's a Carhartt, but it also has a large stain on it.
"I don't care about that," Neal said. He's more concerned about weathering another night in the cold and figuring out how to replace lost documents.
No one has to be out in cold, Mullin said. There is ample room at The Road Home and Rescue Mission shelters.
Even knowing that, some people refuse to enter established shelters because of untreated or poorly treated anxiety or other mental illness, he said.
"Being around lots of people in the shelter is extremely stressful and difficult," Mullin said.
He tries to encourage people to stay indoors and leave the shelter early the next day. Some people still prefer to try to make it on their own outdoors.
Mullin and Piragic frequently find people living in unfathomable — and seemingly unbearable — conditions. People sleep on concrete ledges beneath overpasses.
They assist people living in abandoned buildings. Many stay in automobiles, such as one woman they regularly visit who lives in a van with five dogs. Some 475 Utahns are unsheltered, according to the 2012 count required by the federal government.
Some homeless men are sleeping in large concrete drainage pipes in an industrial area of Salt Lake. The pipes have doors fashioned from pallets. "No trespassing" was posted on one.
Piragic and Mullin once found sleeping bags and other evidence of habitation in the crawl space of an abandoned building.
"I can't imagine going under there with the spiders and everything," Mullin said.
Aside from brutal weather, safety is an ongoing concern for those who live on the street. Homeless people are often victims of thieves.
"When other homeless people want to evict you, they put your stuff and your tent in the river," Mullin said. "I'm not saying it's a death sentence, but it's pretty close when that's everything you own in the whole world."
While Piragic takes solace in helping people get through the day and connecting them to services that can help them return to mainstream society, the work can be heart-wrenching when they learn about homeless friends who suffer frostbite and require amputations.
But she and Mullin are gratified when someone they have known from the streets enters permanent supportive housing.
One such friend died Monday morning. Piragic and Mullin said they were saddened but also pleased that the client was housed in a safe, warm environment.
"We consider that a success story," Mullin said.
Volunteers of America Utah
435 W. Bearcat Drive
Salt Lake City, UT 84115
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