When Palmer DePaulis became Salt Lake City's mayor he had three major goals. The first was the restoration of the City-County Building, and the third was the revitalization of downtown. The second was the construction of a suitable shelter for the homeless.
That's what he told me as we walked through the shell of that $4 million shelter at 440 W. Second South. The mayor believes many of the homeless are "invisible" and hopes that when this facility is complete many of those people will emerge, not just to get a roof over their heads, but to receive counseling and preparation to re-enter the community.Most of us think of the homeless in stereotype - Bill Britt, for instance, "the Hermit of Chesnut Hill," whose makeshift shelter near Boston was destroyed following his bizarre appearance on "Late Night With David Letterman." Britt was only 52 years old but looked at least 70. He had wild hair and seemed unruly, the sort of image that could easily be conjured up by those unfriendly to the homeless.
The truth seems to be that the homeless defy easy description. There are whole families, abandoned mothers with children, Vietnam vets, the mentally disabled, men and women who have left home in desperate attempts to find work. There is also the wide spectrum of highly educated to the illiterate, from the chronically poor to the previously well-to-do. Some have been struggling as transients for years, and some are experiencing the terror of being without a place to live for the first time.
Actually, Salt Lake City has come only recently to the plight of the homeless. In the winter of 1980, a homeless man froze to death as he slept in the back of a truck. There was a public outcry and three emergency shelters were subsequently opened to separately house women, men and families. There are obviously many people who sleep in cars, alleyways, abandoned buildings or open areas. By most estimates, there are as many as 1,400 homeless today in Salt Lake City.
That's why it was especially gratifying to see a city that is still as vital as Salt Lake City trying to meet such a problem before it grows to the scale of Atlanta's or Boston's.
At this walk-through, the mayor was clearly in his element, in spite of the relatively small group that came to watch prominent businessman Jon Huntsman and his wife Karen officially turn over their $250,000 contribution, pushing the project over the top and ensuring, as the mayor said, that the shelter is a reality.
It is an impressive and spacious facility, covering an area of approximately 50,000 square feet, and designed to let in an abundance of natural light. The shelter will contain an indoor children's playground and resource center for adults. There will also be be a transitional school for children from kindergarten through grade 12, a concept that especially appealed to Huntsman as a symbol of seeking our roots in the one-room schoolhouse. A clinic for dental, medical, and substance abuse treatment, as well as facilities for those who are ill or have handicaps and for social work and employment counseling are also planned.
DePaulis and Huntsman seemed on the surface to represent an unlikely alliance, the mayor slight in stature, looking more like a science teacher than a mayor; and Huntsman, tall and rangy, dressed like an industrialist but acting more like a pastor with his flock, pumping hands and unobtrusively draping his long arm around the waists of those asking him questions.
DePaulis was obviously buoyed by this occasion, a milestone in his administration. He was animated and formal as he talked and he kept his jacket on. Huntsman was coatless and soft spoken, but felt as deeply about the shelter as the mayor. In heartfelt tones, he spoke of his family's private commitment to this project. As he draped his arm around my waist and listened to my questions, I had the feeling that this man could have been governor.
Standing in this soon-to-be-completed shelter, a monument to the need to care for those less fortunate among us, I could see the future. DePaulis the Democrat and Huntsman the Republican, standing on the same side today, but opposing each other tomorrow - for governor, for U.S. senator. It may happen, and considering the warmth displayed on this day by both men, Utah will be well served.