SALT LAKE CITY — For four months, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams has kept a secret.
He's shared it with perhaps a handful of people in political circles — but kept it out of headlines, hoping to avoid the perception, he said, of a "publicity stunt in the face of human suffering."
Back in March, just days before he was due by state law to select a third site for a new homeless resource center — a decision he knew would anger thousands of his constituents, regardless of his choice — McAdams left work on a Friday with no money or ID and walked to Salt Lake City's most troubled neighborhood.
Dressed in jeans, sneakers and a hoodie, the county mayor spent three days and two nights walking and sleeping among the homeless and drug-addicted in Salt Lake City's Rio Grande neighborhood.
One night on the street. One night in the shelter.
His experience was "shocking" on multiple levels, he said. And while he by no means meant his experience to be an "expose" on the Road Home shelter, an important stakeholder in homeless services reform, his stay did shed light on some troubling realities within the 1,062-bed shelter, including:
• Blatant use of drugs inside the men's dorms, including his bunkmate injecting drugs into his arm — though he declined to discuss details about that encounter with the Deseret News.
• He smelled what he assumed was smoke from drugs "all night long."
• He witnessed violence — a fight between two men in the dorms, during which a man was dragged off of his bunk and hit his head on the concrete floor.
• He didn't feel safe — and could see why someone would take their chances on the streets in 40-degree rainy weather rather than spend a night in the downtown shelter.
The county mayor has kept his experience private for months. But after the Deseret News learned of the overnight stays from a source and requested an interview, McAdams eventually — reluctantly — agreed to discuss it this week with the Deseret News and Salt Lake Tribune.
His reasoning for keeping it quiet? He was worried it would appear as a "cheap stunt" to the press and public.
"I was concerned that it not look like a publicity stunt in the face of human suffering," the mayor said.
The purpose of the stay, McAdams said, was not to go undercover and expose the troubles homeless providers face while trying to serve Utah's most vulnerable. Rather, it was meant to help him "deepen" his understanding of the current homeless system before he decided which city would house a third homeless resource center.
At the time, McAdams had endured nearly a month of heated public meetings and fury from residents in West Valley City, South Salt Lake and Draper over the thought that their cities would house a homeless shelter — though he and other homeless leaders have promised the new resource centers will be drastically different than the downtown emergency shelter.
McAdams said he felt something was "missing" from the hours of public input and even the more than two years he and his team have spent drafting a plan to reform the county's homeless services.
"I needed to see firsthand, to understand the complexity of the recommendation I was being asked to make," he said.
The experience "instilled in me a conviction that we had to move forward," McAdams said, during a time when many of his constituents were pushing back against years of effort to reform the homeless system.
"There were many people saying, 'Back away and do nothing,'" McAdams said. "Seeing what I saw was shocking, and I came away from this experience knowing we had to go forward, we had to change the system, that we as a community had kicked the can down the road for decades and just looked the other way."
Inside the shelter
After talking it over with his wife, who "was, of course, hesitant," McAdams said he left his wallet behind at his county office at 5 p.m. on Friday, March 24. Wearing a change of clothes, he and a county employee — who declined to be named for this story — left on foot to the Rio Grande neighborhood.
He noted that he made an anonymous donation to a homeless providers account for the services he used on those two nights.
Not disclosing who he was, McAdams said he and his employee spent the first night on a street outside the Rio Grande area to "understand why some people would choose not to go into shelter."
"It was cold — below 40s," the mayor said. When he woke up, it was raining. "You wonder why people would choose to do that, knowing that there were beds available in the shelter."
But the next night, McAdams understood why.
The Deseret News learned from two other people that after McAdams had checked into the men's dorms, he saw his bunkmate injecting drugs into his arm. When asked about that incident, McAdams declined to discuss it.
"I don't want to focus on my brief firsthand experience because I know there are people who see the same and worse every single day," he explained. "The things I saw in my very brief time were shocking and reaffirmed my commitment to take action now."
But the mayor did say in general terms that he saw evidence of drug use, including the presence of what he assumed was the smell of smoke from drugs "all night long" while he tried to sleep.
About 20 feet away from his bunk, McAdams also said an "altercation" broke out between two men. One dragged the other off his bunk and his head hit the concrete.
People also warned him not to take off his shoes — that they would be stolen if he did. They also told him to use his bag as a pillow because if he didn't keep a close eye on his belongings, they would be taken.
"One person told me to be sure not to use the restroom at night because it wasn't safe," McAdams added. The man didn't elaborate, but McAdams said he assumed it was a reference to sexual violence.
"I didn't feel safe," he said. "It was a fairly chaotic environment."
He added: "I certainly could understand why people would choose not to sleep there."
He said if he were addicted to drugs, he would know "the Rio Grande area is not the place to go" to kick the habit, adding that "drug dealing is at every corner."
McAdams also said he was "most troubled" that children were exposed to such conditions.
He told about meeting a young family with a child diagnosed with mild autism. The child was 9 years old — the same age of one of McAdams' kids.
"What psychological trauma is probably inflicted on a child who doesn't know where he's going to sleep or where his next meal is going to come from?" he asked. "It deepened in me a commitment that we've got to do better for these kids."
In the months since McAdams' visit, the Road Home met its July 15 deadline to have all families with children relocated out of the downtown shelter into housing or to the family shelter in Midvale.
The Road Home has a no-drugs policy inside its shelters.
Matt Minkevitch, the Road Home shelter's executive director, didn't know about McAdams' stay until the Deseret News informed him about it this week.
When told what the mayor had witnessed — including the drug use and violence — Minkevitch called the events "unfortunate" and "concerning."
He said the shelter has around-the-clock security that patrols the shelter and screens for drugs before clients are allowed in, and the shelter has "zero tolerance" for violence.
"We do our best to make sure that when we find somebody using drugs, we escort them off the property," Minkevitch said. "And violent behavior is something we do not tolerate at all."
Minkevitch, after pulling incident files of that night, March 25, did find a report of an altercation that security responded to, though it's not clear if it was the same fight that McAdams witnessed.
"It's not uncommon for us to deal with people who are in the throes of addiction," Minkevitch said, admitting that there have been incidents when drugs have been brought into the shelter.
"There will always be a margin of error," he said, adding that even in secure environments like prisons, people still find ways to sneak in drugs.
"It's unfortunate that it's happening — unfortunate that it's happening anywhere," Minkevitch said, noting that the national opioid crisis has created a "particularly challenging problem" for homeless shelters across the country.
That night there were likely about 600 men in the shelter — a large number of people for one shelter to manage. Minkevitch said the shelters in Utah are "under so much stress right now," noting that the Road Home's capacity has grown over the years to accommodate demand.
Minkevitch said the correct combination of affordable housing, and substance abuse and mental health treatment would help lift the burden off emergency shelters and help prevent the mixture of drugs and violence with people experiencing homelessness.
Not an 'expose'
McAdams emphasized he didn't "do this as an expose" or to start a debate about the Road Home.
"I get that there are a lot of providers who are trying really hard to do good work, and I don't want my comments in any way to be an expose on them," he said. "I think we have a lot of great service providers trying really hard under impossible circumstances to do what they think is right."
Most of all, McAdams said his experience "reaffirms the conclusion" leaders have reached that the current homeless model needs to change and that immediate actions need to be taken to improve public safety in and around the shelter.
Minkevitch said he understands why McAdams would "be compelled" to spend a night in the shelter — though it's not something he would encourage for the "average person" because it might mean the sacrifice of a bed for a person in need.
"I respect (the mayor) for undertaking this in order to gain perspective to make an informed decision," Minkevitch said. "He faced a daunting task, a very short window in order to make a very important decision."
McAdams said he walked away from the experience knowing that "doing nothing is not an option, even if it's the end of me politically."
He recalled a reporter asking him during a press conference the day he selected the South Salt Lake site whether he felt the situation has damaged his political career.
"I almost broke down in tears," McAdams said.
At the time, he had paused before he answered with a smile: "Yes."
"I knew when I accepted this task that it would come with consequences for me personally," he said. "But this work isn't about me personally. It's about doing the right thing for people who are in crisis. If I have to pay a personal price for moving this work forward, it's a price I'm willing to pay.
"I ran for office to make a difference," McAdams continued, "not to have a job."
This week, McAdams stood by that answer, saying, "I had a decision to protect myself or to take action to address this problem, and it was one or the other."
In the months since, state leaders including Gov. Gary Herbert and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox have joined House Speaker Greg Hughes in addressing the "lawlessness" in the area — a plan Cox, the state's "point person," has coined "Operation Rio Grande."
Though the details of that plan have not been unveiled, McAdams sat in on an hourslong meeting last week with state and city leaders to start coordinating an effort that McAdams said he's "delighted" to see coming to fruition.
"One of my frustrations at the time was that I felt that I was alone," he said. "Political leaders for decades have kicked the can down the road, and I knew that we had to do something."
"Speaker Hughes, to his credit, was with me," McAdams added, but "nobody else seemed to care."
Hughes said he knew McAdams had stayed at the Road Home but agreed to keep it a secret at McAdams' request.
Hughes said McAdams' experience "opened my eyes" and was "absolutely" an influencing factor in his motivation to step in over the past several months and push harder for better control of the lawlessness in the area.
"It without a doubt informed my approach and my sence of urgency," the speaker said. "It has provided invaluable information for me and has really informed my decision-making process."
McAdams said he's "ecstatic" that the governor has "finally woken up and realized they cannot sit on the sidelines any longer."
He just wishes it hadn't taken this long.
Revamping the system, he said, "can't happen fast enough."
The Road Home's downtown shelter is under a state-mandated deadline to close in June 2019, when the three new homeless resource centers come online.
Contributing: Ladd Egan