SALT LAKE CITY — For the next little while, all John Greeson wants is a new tent.
After 14 years of living on the streets, "camping here and there," Greeson says he's ready to move into permanent supportive housing.
But as he works his way up the list, he'd like a new tent.
"I will look for a tent for you," said Felicia Mangura, an outreach worker with the inaugural Street Engagement Team.
"If I can do that, can I look for you here?"
Greeson nodded in agreement.
Mangura is one of four members of the new Street Engagement Team, funded by a $200,000 grant from the Salt Lake County Council of Governments' inaugural Homeless Services Fund. Cities in Salt Lake County and the county itself contributed to the fund, appropriating the equivalent of 35 cents per capita.
The team of two men and two women reaches out to people in Pioneer Park and Rio Grande Street, directing homeless men, women and families to resources for addressing their immediate needs such as bottled water or sunscreen on a hot day or a pair of new socks. They help people obtain personal documents such as birth certificates, Social Security cards and state identification cards.
Most important, the team surveys clients according to a vulnerability index, asking clients how long they have been homeless, whether they utilize services, and whethery they have been hospitalized, arrested, used illegal substances or engaged in risky behaviors such as unprotected sex, using intravenous drugs or sharing needles. The index is used to determine clients' relative need for housing.
Downy Bowles, who worked for The Road Home for a decade before becoming part of the Street Engagement Team, said she is sometimes surprised by the conditions and issues she encounters on Rio Grande Street and in Pioneer Park.
There are far more young people in their late teens and early 20s living on the street than she had anticipated.
The sheer number of people who sleep in Pioneer Park, alleyways, automobiles and doorways in the area between the park and Rio Grande Street is astonishing, Bowles said.
"Every day there are new faces. Every single day we see people we haven't seen before," she said.
But she and team member George Kein, a veteran employee of The Road Home, greet others by name, offering them an encouraging word and asking them if they need help with anything.
Team member David Jones, who worked as a paramedic in Texas for 10 years before relocating to Utah and working for Volunteers of America at Utah's detox center, said the team of four works a relatively small area of the city. Even so, there are three distinct neighborhoods in that space.
In Pioneer Park, the team frequently meets people who do not utilize services or know about them.
Rio Grande Street is known as "The Block" by clients of homeless service providers. "The Block" has its own code, Bowles said, explaining that clients sometimes "evict" other clients from the area.
A block to the west, the team has encountered drug dealers and sex workers, many of whom have been reluctant to engage with the new team, Jones said.
While the grant limits the team's work to the vicinity of Rio Grande Street and Pioneer Park, the addition of the Salt Lake City Police Department's Metro Support Bureau at 420 W. 200 South has pushed a critical mass of clients south, to cluster around the Rescue Mission of Salt Lake and small patch of grass on the other side of the street where a few trees provide shade.
Given this new development, the grant's service boundaries may need to be revised, team members said.
While service providers have worked cooperatively for years, this is the first time people from different agencies have labored under the same roof and worked as a team. This is the first time that The Road Home has conducted outreach efforts.
As Kein explains, "There's a lot we didn't know that they they know about."
"Together, we're a big force for people that normally wouldn't know who to turn to," Jones said.
Mangura said one of the team's primary responsibilities is to help keep people safe, which can include distributing condoms or bleach kits as a harm reduction measure against the transmission of HIV and other infectious diseases.
The ultimate goal of the team's regular visits to the park and Rio Grande Street is to cultivate trust with people so team members can more readily refer them to services and housing.
That's Anna Wright's plan.
"I need to put myself back in the shelter and get a job," she said.
"I need to talk to them (Steet Engagement Team members) because I don't know how close I am on getting housing."
HOW YOU CAN HELP
The Street Engagement Team needs donations of
men's and women's underwear
first aid kits
moist toilet paper wipes
reusable water bottles
Donations can be dropped off at Volunteers of America - Utah's offices, 435 W. Bearcat Drive, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays.
For more information, call (801) 363-9414.
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