It's only 9:30 a.m., but people are already gathering on the street corner near the old Rio Grande Hotel, where the "Inn" used to be located. A man walks across the street and looks into one of the windows, but all he sees are two long, shabby, vacant rooms.
"Sorry, buddy, we're closed for a few weeks," the Rev. Jerald Merrill, an Episcopalian priest, tells him.The Rev. Merrill shakes his head as the man walks away. "He used to come in here every day, for three or four hours a day. He has some trouble communicating, he doesn't talk to anyone. He's a little mixed up, but he's not dangerous or anything."
The Rev. Merrill knows a lot of the people on the streets, some of them by name, some only by their appearance. For more than eight months, he has been a friend and important contact for the homeless of Salt Lake City. The Rev. Merrill ran the Inn, a day shelter located at 428 W. Third South, where the homeless could get free coffee, rest and fill out job applications.
But the Inn closed its doors last week. The sign painted on the window in English and Spanish says it will relocate and open in a few weeks. The Rev. Merrill has great plans for his new Inn - expanding current services, larger rooms, literacy and food programs, resting rooms, telephones - but limited funds may force him to put some of his ideas on hold.
The Rev. Merrill started the first Inn in January. He rented a long, plain room at the bottom of the Rio Grande Hotel, set up some tables and chairs, brewed a huge pot of coffee and opened the doors to the public from 6 a.m. to noon each day.
The Inn offered help with no strings attached. Anyone could come in off the streets, rest, have cup of coffee and stay as long as he liked. Rev. Merrill and his staff would often have temporary and, once in a while, permanent job contacts. Bible study classes and worship services were also available.
A couple of months later, the Rev. Merrill expanded the Inn into the next room, found more volunteers and kept the doors open until 6 p.m.
"On a slow day, I think we counted about 200 people that came in. On a fast day, the numbers range well over 300. It depends on the day and weather," the Rev. Merrill said.
It was the Inn's popularity that led to its closure.
"It drove the landlord crazy. There were so many people here he couldn't run his hotel. He had a lot of people staying here that slept during the day and worked at night," the Rev. Merrill said.
The new Inn will be located across the street from the homeless shelter now under construction. The Inn's board, made up of representatives from various churches, paid the first month's rent, but the Rev. Merrill said limited funds delayed the move.
"It was just too much of a financial risk. We don't have a lot of money," the Rev. Merrill said.
The Inn operates on small donations it receives from groups around the state. It has applied for federal grants, but won't receive any money (even if it qualifies) until September.
The Rev. Merrill hopes to receive more donations for the new Inn. `We're hoping to raise $20,000," he said.
He hopes to use donated money to expand the Inn's job opportunities program."Most of the homeless are very skilled, good workers. A lot of them are carpenters, construction workers and welders," he said.
He also hopes to install showers, a nap room and start a literacy program. The Inn will also provide a base for the Homeless Organization for People Everywhere (HOPE), a group comprised of people who are or have been homeless.
But the Rev. Merrill's biggest dream is to be able to provide food at his Inn. He said food is one of the main problems homeless people face, while many grocery stores and restaurants throw away edible food. He hopes to collect such food and serve it to homeless people for a marginal price.