There was a big brouhaha around the Salt Lake homeless shelter a couple of weeks ago.
Someone called a local radio show and told listeners that the Salt Lake Community Shelter and Resource Center was turning homeless people away despite below-freezing temperatures.Such an action was potentially cruel. Temperatures had turned literally deadly. A man with a sleeping bag had just frozen to death near a viaduct.
Within hours, the Salt Lake mayor's office was flooded with calls. People were outraged. Some reportedly called and complained strongly to Palmer DePaulis' staff.
Others offered to help.
Telephones were also ringing down at the shelter, where staff members received what one characterized as "hate" calls.
Representatives from a couple of organizations got on the telephone to their members to see what they could do. They told shelter director Patrick Poulin (who didn't hear the show himself; he just heard about it) that they had "emergency" funds that could be used to help the shelter out during the cold season.
The concern was heart-warming.
There was just one problem.
While the telephone lines were buzzing and other callers were debating the subject on the air, no one apparently asked the homeless shelter, or Travelers Aid, which operates it, if the story was true.
Times are, admittedly, hard at the homeless shelter. Despite an outpouring of community support - especially during the holidays - the shelter has perpetual problems raising enough money to cover operating costs.
This community paid a large portion of the cost to build the shelter. But it's a constant battle to raise money to keep it going. It takes more than a roof and four walls to shelter people. A shelter must have staff to assist those staying there and to deal with problems. This shelter has chosen to use a caseworker model in an effort to do more than warehouse people. It wants to help people get out of the shelter by becoming self-sufficient.
There are also basic costs, like electricity and water and heat. It takes a lot of money, and the shelter seems to hover close to a deficit.
To counter it, shelter hours are sometimes adjusted. In warm weather, limits are put on the number of people who can stay in the three shelters (a facility each for single men, women and families).
Those cost-saving measures don't happen at the risk of human lives. When the temperature is bitterly cold, the shelter exceeds its normal population limits. Cots are brought in for the overflow.
If there aren't enough cots, according to Poulin, people are allowed to stay in the lobby where it is at least warm. It's not the most comfortable place, but it is protection from winter's bite.
Arrangements have even been made to take care of an overflow from that, although it hasn't happened yet. A nearby dining room could be used to accommodate cots or sleeping bags.
Organizations that provide services to the homeless try to help more people than just those who come into their facilities. Places like the shelter and the St. Vincent De Paul Center (which operates a dining room), the Salvation Army (which serves dinner) and others have formed a coalition to better serve people who have somehow slipped through the cracks and landed on the streets.
They have a strong outreach program. At least once every two weeks, I've been told, representatives from the coalition visit the encampments and the viaducts - some of the places where homeless people congregate if they're not using the shelters - to make sure those individuals know about the services available, including medical, shelter and food programs.
"If someone's stuck outside in winter, it's by choice at least 90 percent of the time," said St. Vincent De Paul Center director Joe Winterer. "The word is definitely on the street that there's help available. Between the grapevine and our outreach efforts, no one's here (on the streets of Salt Lake City) long before they find out."
Ironically, the shelter didn't receive the amount of financial help that was offered because the story was a fabrication, although there really is an emergency due to the sheer numbers of people seeking shelter.
If Poulin had, in fact, turned people out into the cold, he'd now be better off financially. But he acted with compassion - and the coffers are poorer because of it.
Odd, isn't it?