Outreach helps homeless beat the heat

Published: Tuesday, July 2 2013 1:05 p.m. MDT

Kelly Crowther holds up a small water bottle as he and a friend talk with Volunteers of America outreach workers Monday, July 1, 2013, while sitting in the shade near the Salt Lake City Main Library.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — On the fifth consecutive day of 100-degree temperatures, Kelly Crowther’s coping strategy was drinking lots of water and seeking shade.

Crowther said he has lived on the streets for about three years, enduring the extreme cold of Utah winters and extreme heat of its summers. The past week has been particularly difficult, he said.

“It’s getting hard. I’m ex-military and it’s hammering me,” Crowther said of the recent spate of temperatures exceeding 100 degrees.

Crowther said he panhandles, but in recent days it has become unbearable to stand out in the heat for long.

“After it hit 105 the other day. I ran out of water. That was it,” he said.

Members of Volunteers of America’s library engagement team checked in with Crowther and his friend Jennifer, who would not provide her last name, Monday afternoon to offer referrals and make note of supplies that they might need. While the team doesn't carry supplies, it can readily summon a well-stocked VOA outreach van.

Because many homeless people congregate in public libraries during the hours that shelters are closed, the VOA team works the area surrounding the Salt Lake Main Library to keep in touch with homeless people and to provide referrals or even rides in a VOA outreach van to Fourth Street Clinic, emergency rooms or mental health providers.

One of the primary goals of the team is developing a relationship of trust with clients who sometimes just need someone to talk to or just a few basics to tide them over until they can access food stamp benefits. Other times, team members encounter people with severe medical needs.

Last summer, the team met a woman whose legs were so badly sunburned that she required immediate medical attention.

“It got infected and it was weeping. We took her to Fourth Street Clinic,” Jen Page said.

On Monday, outreach worker Torle Nenbee said one man she had been getting to know, if only to say hello, had carried on a two-minute conversation with her. That was significant progress.

“That’s how people start talking to us and gaining trust,” Nenbee said.

The engagement team’s partners are VOA, the office of Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker and Optum Health.

Team member Ethan Sellers said he, Page and Nenbee contact 20 to 100 people a day, depending on the weather.

“As it’s been getting a lot hotter, we’ve been seeing a lot more people coming in,” he said.

Fourth Street Clinic is also working to keep people who are unsheltered properly hydrated and protected from the sun through the MOST, Medical Outreach Services Team, it operates with VOA.

Both nonprofit organizations have acute needs for donations of bottled water and sunscreen.

While many homeless people carry water bottles, there are few places that allow them to fill them, said VOA spokeswoman Michelle Templin-Polasek.

With temperatures expected to stay in 100s and upper 90s the remainder of the week, Crowther said the main thing he and other people on the street need is “this,” holding up a bottle of water.

Other nonprofits that serve homeless individuals and families are changing schedules to help people endure the record-setting heat.

“Due to a generous grant from the Pamela Atkinson Homeless Trust Fund, Catholic Community Services will now be opening the Weigand Homeless Day Center on Saturdays during the day to protect our clients from the heat,” said Dennis Kelsch, director of Basic Needs Services for CCS of Utah.

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