Here's a riddle: What do a homeless woman, a visitor from Tonga, a young man from Honduras, an English-as-a-second-language teacher and a grandmother who receives public assistance have in common?
Answer: They were among several hundred people who spent Friday at the "Citizen's Day at the Legislature," sponsored by Utah Issues.During the one-day session, citizens listened to presentations from advocate groups on current issues, toured the Capitol and watched the Legislature in action if they wished, then formed small discussion groups and had lunch with legislators.
Rebecca Owings has spent 26 years in Utah, living out of her car for the past two years and sleeping on the couch in the employees lounge of a local advocacy organization.
Owings said she came to the Capitol "because there are a lot of people on the street who feel the've been abandoned, and it's an exercise in futility to try to change things. But I haven't reached that point yet. I still have hope.
"I'm trying to raise some awareness and educate these people about our lives. Attention to the homeless has centered around homeless families, but there are a lot of others who need help, too."
Mental illness on the streets is of particular concern, she said. "We see a lot of programs that look really good but aren't accomplishing much. Sometimes the solutions aren't programs, but more practical help. I have a friend who was offered two jobs, but he didn't have the tools he needed, so he couldn't get the jobs and had to go back into the (homeless) shelter. If he'd had tools - and they wouldn't have cost much - he could be working."
Dolores Salters is an Aid to Families with Dependent Children intern, which means she is getting job skills working with a company that is aligned with the program. She is raising two of her grandchildren and is "just climbing out of adverse times and unemployment."
She wanted to discuss two issues in particular with lawmakers: fair housing and day-care slots that let welfare recipients could go to work and become independent. She also, she admitted shyly, came to do "a little networking. I want more than anything to get back into the employment force. I've worked almost forever and this is hard. There are a lot of people in my circumstance, so I thought I should speak out."
Speaking out is a habit of years, Salters said. She described herself as "radical in the '60s and going strong."
Salters is black and said she knows about housing discrimination, although it only happened to her once. "The apartment wasn't available to me, but when I sent a white friend around to check an hour later, it was back on the market. I think fair housing is an important issue."
C.E. "Stoney" Stonehocker works for the Asian Association of Utah and teaches English in the Guadalupe Schools. He brought a group of students, including Julian Fajardo (formerly of Honduras) and Mapuana Vea (in Salt Lake to visit relatives) to get a first-hand look at the legislative process.
Stonehocker said that, besides learning about the U.S. government, visits to the Capitol also sparked personal interest in issues. "Hopefully, many of these people, who attend three-hour classes three times a week, will get their citizenship and vote. They'll have an impact.
"And the more pigmented skin (lawmakers) see, the more likely they are to see the issues that affect them and get involved."
The Asian association and some of the students have been at the Capitol speaking against the English as a second language bill, he said.