In a season of hope, at least one staff member at St. Vincent De Paul Center is hoping the momentum built by the center this year will continue into the future.
Ron Griffin, coordinator of human service programs at the center, which provides services to Utah's homeless population, is most proud of the center's successful jobs program last summer."We got about 60 people hired to work with pipe fitting," he said. "People who find themselves living on the streets can't get off them by going to work for $3.35 an hour. It costs too much to live and it's hard to save much."
An out-of-state company temporarily hired homeless men and paid $7 and more an hour for 10 hours work for 30 days straight, with no days off. Each worker earned about $2,000, enough to go home, to buy a car or get an apartment - enough to start again, he said. Some of the men were homeless, others were hovering on the edge in "pre-homelessness." They were able to catch up on back rent, utilities and other debts that jeopardized their lives and security.
Griffin said 80 percent of those who worked got vehicles, homes or money to go back to their families. Ten percent "drank it," and he's not sure what happened to the other 10 percent. But 95 percent of the men who took the jobs stayed with them, and 12 are now working similar projects in California, while seven others have been hired for a project in Wyoming.
Now summer jobs are gone and center staff members are trying to find opportunities for at least seasonal work.
"A lot of these guys are skilled," Griffin said. "They're pipe fitters, mechanics, plumbers, electricians. We even have a former professor. And they aren't always particular; some just say they want `a' job. So we work with the Job Partnership Training Act and Vocational Rehab, and we try to make sure that ex-offenders get into the targeted job tax credit program or on-the-job training."
Others are being referred into schooling, where it's appropriate, with great success, Griffin said.
The center also has a successful medical clinic, Wasatch Homeless Health Care, and a registered nurse is on site for several hours daily to take care of minor medical problems and make referrals. A dentist, Lane Fluckiger, and an oral surgeon, Vaun Mikesell, come in once a week to take care of dental problems "and stay until they've seen everyone who signed up," Griffin said.
Strides have also been made in referrals for treatment of drug and alcohol abuse, a problem that Griffin estimated affects 20 to 30 percent of the homeless.
"So many want treatment," Griffin said, "but there's no room. Allan Ainsworth (a driving force behind the clinic) got nine beds at First Step House and one bed for a female at the Haven. Those beds have been filled since we started."
Substance abuse problems are sometimes referred to agencies like St. Mary's Home for Men or the Veterans Administration (about one-third of Utah's homeless men are veterans). They could refer three times as many, he said, if there were enough beds _ or even programs _ to deal with substance abusers.
"If I can't refer them, they are supposed to stay sober on the streets and that isn't going to happen. Drug and alcohol addiction is cunning, powerful and baffling. I believe there has to be a reason to maintain sobriety _ things in your life that are positive. Addicts learn early that drugs and alcohol are an immediate fix to times of pain or stress."
Griffin said the theory that an addict can "quit only for himself" doesn't work with a "street guy," who has low or no self-esteem and no reason to stay sober.
"They've been drunk, on the streets, hauled to detox, maybe in jail, sometimes reduced to panhandling and going to places like St. Vincent's for a meal. These things do not enhance your self-image," he said.
Some have to hit bottom, but "bottom" is relative. For some it's losing a job or a home or a family. Some never quite reach bottom. Many _ maybe most _ die before they get help, he said.
Fortunately, the homeless are getting more opportunities, Griffin said, something to be thankful for. And as Thanksgiving Day passes, he's getting ready to make out his Christmas wish list.
What does he want?
First, and most important, he'd like to see detox expanded to handle the volume better. He wants more jobs and hopes other employers will give his clients a chance to prove their worth. He said he sees a real need for more programs to treat the addicted. And finally, he wishes that St. Vincent had more equipment in its clinic _ particularly an X-ray machine and supplies to fill teeth, rather than just extracting them.
Most of all, he wants another year of growth and success for the center's program _ just like 1988.
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