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210 Rio Grande: The epicenter for Utah's homeless

Published: Monday, Oct. 15 2012 9:50 p.m. MDT

Sterling, Theresa and Darren Williams discuss their options on how to get to Taylorsville to look at an apartment at The Road Home in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 11, 2012. The Willamses have been homeless for nearly a year. Valory Sargeant, 10, hugs her mother, Michelle Chatelain, upon returning to the shelter after a school day. Chatelain and her two children have been staying at the shelter for a few months. They have been approved for Section 8 housing assistance. They are waiting for an apartment to become available.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Theresa Williams sits on a sidewalk next to the entrance of the Road Home in Salt Lake City with most of her family's worldly belongings.

All that they own fits into four plastic bins wrapped in masking tape with "Williams" scrawled on top, and in a red wagon, which allows the family of four to stay mobile.

Using a compact mirror and a zippered bag of cosmetics, she applies eyeliner and mascara.

"I never in my life thought I would be staying at a shelter," she says, as she finishes applying her makeup.

"Just because I'm homeless doesn't mean I need to look 'homelessly,' " she says as she shows off the leather jacket she bought at a local Deseret Industries with a spin on the sidewalk. "I'm looking pretty classy for 210 Rio Grande."

Where Rio Grande Street meets 200 South is a sort of epicenter for the city's homeless.

With the Saint Vincent de Paul Soup Kitchen on one side and Road Home shelter on the other, even those who haven't landed a spot 210 Rio Grande find themselves congregating near its doors.

More than 80 percent of the state's homeless live along the Wasatch Front, according to a 2011 state report. Many land here at some time or another to find shelter, sustenance or a listening ear.

The people, their stories and situations vary, but all spoke on a recent weekday of the that brought them here and of the hope that those circumstances will change. 

Williams family

Theresa Williams is joined by her 15-year-old son, Sterling, who stays with a friend and attends school in West Valley City during the week and visits his parents each Friday. Eleven-year-old Skyler is at school.

Husband Darren Williams rummages through the pile searching for a shirt suitable to wear to an appointment that afternoon to look at an apartment.

"I have a really good feeling about it, too, you guys," Theresa says of the three-bedroom listing in Taylorsville.

The family has been out of a permanent place for nearly a year, since last November. Before that, they had been living in the same apartment for nine years. The owner decided to sell and gave everyone two months notice.

"We didn't have any money saved and I did not see it coming," Theresa Williams explains. 

The family's bishop provided the funds to keep the family in a motel for four months, but they've been going back and forth between the Road Home shelters in Salt Lake City and Midvale since then. Darren Williams said he has picked up random jobs here and there, but has not found steady work.

The family also lost its truck when the parking tickets stacked up trying to keep ahead of downtown's parking restrictions and it was impounded. Darren said they couldn't come up with the $200 to get it back.

"I get a little more and more depressed each day," he says.

"You can't get depressed," Theresa cuts in.

She admits she sometimes blames their situation on her husband "for not jumping to the podium and getting a job." They worry about their children, especially in the hours between the time Skyler gets out of school and when they're allowed back into the shelter at night.

"We don't know what to do with ourselves," Darren says. "Rain, snow, whatever, you're out that door."

Most days, they take Skyler to the library or to The Gateway shopping center. Theresa acknowledges that as much as she doesn't want to go to a shelter, her needs are the last of her worries.

"My kids — I feel bad for them because they're just kids," she says.

"In the streets, they're more surrounded by drugs. There's more chance for kids to get addicted. It's one of those bound-to-happen things when it's all around you, right in your face."

"Frosty" Forrester:

Johnny "Frosty" Forrester came to Utah on a bus from Dallas. When asked Friday what brought him here, he answers with one word — "circumstances" — before elaborating.

"Burying my mother," he says. "I had to sell my car, my motorcycle. Everything I had to pay for the funeral."

His mother came to Utah with a friend in 2006. He kept in touch with her by phone until she died of cancer about three months ago.

The funeral director, he says, told them the $8,000 he paid covered the cheapest funeral they could have. Forrester still wonders why the man felt it was necessary to tell him that.

He had an apartment in Texas and was "staying afloat" working construction jobs. But without a reliable mode of transportation, keeping the various jobs he's landed in Utah has proven more difficult.

"It's a tough situation," he says. "Some days I get depressed. Sooner or later, something's going to break."

He tries to take it one day at a time and looks forward to the day that he'll get out of Utah and out of the shelter. He counts the little blessings, such as having two good, working legs.

"You can't wish upon a star and make it go away," he says. "It's going to be the same thing, same place, same time. You just take it day by day. If you think about it too much, it'll eat you alive."

Valory Sargeant

Valory is a 10-year-old Beacon Heights Elementary student who is the first to tell you that she goes to the school for its Children's Behavior Therapy Unit. She also says her family is in the Road Home for its third time, including around this time last year.

She is bright and articulate and outgoing, even quick to volunteer information, such as her desire to have a room of her own because "brothers are always gross." She will turn 11 later this month and hopes her family will have a home by then.

"We're hoping on a little house," Valory's mother, Michelle Chatelain, says.

Every weekend, Valory goes to her dad's house and says that when she comes back to their room at the Road Home, "I can't even see my bed," thanks to younger brother, William. She's been trying to "be more clean." She's never lived in a place with a room of her own.

Chatelain says Valory is resourceful enough to earn the extra $10 needed to have a nasal spray flu vaccine as opposed to a shot. Did it by buying Twinkies and cupcakes and selling them for a bit more to whomever would buy them.

"Here, every single penny counts," Valory says.

Linda Bonds:

When things got rough in her native Tacoma, Wash., Linda Bonds says she would go to the ocean and watch the waves.

"It calms me," she said. "Here, there's no water. It's the desert."

Bonds says she has been on and off Utah's streets since 2008. It was the same year she pleaded guilty to a third-degree felony charge of illegal possession or use of a controlled substance.

Bonds claims she hadn't been using or selling drugs, but when the boyfriend she had been with since they first came to Utah from Las Vegas in 1997 was caught with them, she took the fall. He had two felonies already and she feared the "third strike" would land him in prison, so she took the drugs and the charges that came with them.

In 2008, he walked out on her and she's "been surviving" ever since. She says she completed probation and the program she was ordered to finish — a story confirmed by court records.

That felony really causes her problems, she says, when it comes to securing housing. She insists she hasn't had any problems with the law in four years and while medical problems have kept her out of a job, she gets Social Security and disability checks that could help cover rent. Still, she can't pass a background check.

"I don't understand why I can't get in," she says, before starting to cry. "If God can give you a second chance, if he's a forgiving person, why can't the people he puts in authority give a person a second chance? That's what hurts. I haven't done wrong in four years, so why? I just don't get it."

For the time being, she has a "safe, secure" place to stay, sleeping on the couch of a former homeless friend who was able to obtain housing. She doesn't know how long it will last, though, and she knows the cold weather is coming.

"I layer up, honey," she explains on this gray, rainy Friday. "You put on some layers and do what you've got to do."

Her faith sustains her and while she jokes that she is ready for the "trials and tribulation" to be behind her, she believes "with God's help, I will prevail." She has been told the felony will matter less when five years has passed and she prays that is the case.

"Just because we're on the street doesn't mean we're all bad people," she says. "Circumstances could have them here the next minute."

Help for the homeless

The plight of Utah's homeless does not fall on deaf ears.

There are volunteers and caseworkers and others who have spent much of their lives trying to help.

Dennis Kelsch, director of Basic Needs Services for Catholic Services, is one who helps. He has been with the group for more a decade and has been at its location off of Rio Grande for seven

He said he sees and serves a wide array of people at Saint Vincent de Paul Soup Kitchen and Weigand Center, which provides the use of showers, phones, offers haircuts every Monday.

The kitchen serves lunch and day and, by his estimate, around 550 people at lunch and 480 people at dinner.

"(The numbers) have gone up in the last couple of years," Kelsch said, noting that they see an additional 150 or so each year.

"We see a lot more families, a lot more children."

He said the influx prompted the decision to designate half the dining with tables for families. While the Road Home provides the Rio Grande, he knows his group's efforts are vital, too.

"The basic human need is food," he said. "It's nourishment. If you get food, you won't have energy to take care of your children or a job."

He concedes the food isn't always the best, but it's something and good enough for most of the staff to eat. Rio Grande and the surrounding it have plenty of services, including coffee and at the Rescue Mission and a medical clinic, which makes this a gathering place.

"Where there's services, people will come," Kelsch said. "We see it There's everything out there, really. So many categories (of that I see. We're here to give people another chance."

Chronically homeless

He has already noticed that a concerted effort to get housing for the homeless has made a difference. It used to be that someone in transitional housing until caseworkers could "straighten out problems." Now, housing comes first.

"Right now, they do a lot to help them get off the street and get a stable lifestyle," Kelsch said. "I think that's been more

This focus on the chronically homeless is the result of a seven-year Backed by numerous community programs and organizations, the Division of Housing and Community Development and the State Services Office have been honing in on the state's chronically population since 2005.

That population includes those have been homeless for more than a or those who have been three or four times in as many Gordon Walker, director the Housing and Community Development said.

According to Utah's Annualized Point-in-Time Count reports from 2005 2012, the homeless population makes up 0.5 to 0.6 percent of the population. Of that 0.6 percent, the chronically homeless made 9 percent of the population in 2005 and 3 percent in 2012.

"Of (the chronically homeless), we have now reduced the chronic population by 72 percent," Walker said. "We developed a 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness. ... We're now down to the point where we pretty well know who's still out there by name. ... We will end chronic homelessness within that 10-year period."

He said it was easiest to tackle the homeless population in segments and the decision was made to focus on the chronically homeless because housing them would both save money and free up space in shelters for those who only needed short-term housing. Someone who is chronically homeless costs an average of $20,000 a year in services. When placed in housing, the cost is cut to $8,000.

The dramatic decrease in chronically homeless numbers makes Utah unique in the nation. But it's by no means the end. There are still 542 Utahns who are chronically homeless and another 16,522 who were counted as homeless this year.

"That doesn't mean that we've solved all forms of homelessness," Walker said. "What we want to do is to give them an opportunity and so we will always be working at this. We're not thinking that we're going to be ending homelessness, even with all of our efforts. There's other factors far beyond our control."

Then there are the families.

There has been an increase in homeless families, but Walker said they, on average, stay in shelters for 26 days.

"Homeless families are as much a result of the economic decline rather than some other debilitating condition," Walker said. "A chronically homeless individual might be addicted to alcohol or drugs or have mental illness and, generally, will have a debilitating condition other than just economics."

He believes Utah's good economy actually contributes to homelessness in that it attracts job seekers who show up with little more than their cars. It's not all economics, either, Walker said, pointing out that even improvements in economic conditions have not led to a decrease in the overall homeless population.

For now the focus is on the chronically homeless. In a month that designation will include the Williams family, out of a home for more than a year. The family's struggles are matched by Walker's efforts to lend a hand.

"We're getting there. ... When we started we had hope that we could pull this together and it's coming and it will happen."

E-mail: emorgan@desnews.com

Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam

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