6:41 p.m., Monday
After work I exchange my shirt and tie for a sweat shirt and jeans, stuffing my driver's license, a house key and a quarter into my pocket. I lock my door and begin the walk to the Salt Lake Community Homeless Shelter and Resource Center.Snow begins falling a few blocks from the shelter at 210 Rio Grande St. The bitter-cold weather will make the night harsh and likely will drive more homeless inside, filling the shelter beyond its normal capacity of 240 beds.
In fact, shelter Executive Director Patrick Poulin says 330 men stayed in the shelter that night, 90 more than the expected capacity of the single-men's facility.
"The numbers are staggering," he tells me later during an interview. Sadder yet is that the numbers aren't likely to decline.
I arrive at the shelter. The building, which opened in November, replacing an older, smaller facility, resembles any office building in downtown Salt Lake City, save for the men standing outside the entrance--smoking, waiting.
The door swings shut behind me; a man greets me pleasantly and searches me.
"If you have a knife or a gun or anything, you gotta turn it in at the desk," he said. I can't tell whether he is joking or not.
"No. Got some pens," I said.
Pens are OK, I'm told. The man then instructs me to have a seat and wait for an interview with the case aide who will give me my "bed pass" which is needed to get into the shelter's living area.
"We gotta new guy here," the man who searched me says, pointing his thumb at me. I stand up and walk over to the case aide's desk.
"You must be the Deseret News guy," says Jim, the case aide.
Poulin expected my arrival at the shelter and he preferred I be up-front about being a reporter. Too often, he said, people think that because of their circumstances, the homeless are "public property" and are free to be exploited.
"It would be interesting if a homeless person asked you if he could come to your house just to see how a reporter lives," he said. "We don't want them to feel like they're being watched."
Jim--he didn't want his last name used--recently went "spectacularly bankrupt," and after a few nights in a Murray public rest room, came to the shelter. Now he works on the shelter staff.
He takes my driver's license, acknowledging that many residents don't have identification, and fills out a form for a bed pass. I read the rules taped to the metal desk where Jim sits. No knives more than 2 inches in length. Bathe daily. Check in or you won't get a bed.
The first night at the shelter is free, Jim says. Good, I only brought a quarter, I think to myself. After that, it's a dollar a night and one 15-minute work detail or, if you don't have the buck, two work details a day.
Jim is finished processing me. I go to the front desk where someone gives me a voucher number needed to ensure a bed that night.
"See you at 10 o'clock upstairs," the guy says. At 10, the staff will assign me a bed.
I walk upstairs and into the TV room and sit down. Some men look at me and see my note pad. They stare suspiciously. Some drink coffee in a Styrofoam cup bought for 15 cents at the shelter. Others watch television with the volume up loud. Still, the TV is inauduble because of the constant din of talking, chairs scratching the floor, people coughing. Nearly everyone seems to have a cold.
Jim, the one who processed me, comes into the TV room and says he'll show me around the place. We walk into the dormitory room where 250 cots are set up inches apart. Some men are sleeping there at this early hour. Others are reading, talking, listening to music through headphones. Still others are coughing.
Under some cots are things stuffed in garbage bags or piled in boxes. Pants, jackets, bedding, a brown apple. These are the things the men own.
"Doesn't anybody steal this stuff?." I ask Jim.
"No one really has anything that's all that valuable," he says, walking back to the bathroom. Men are showering here, shaving, brushing their teeth. Jim shows me the laundry room, the infirmary, the case worker's offices, the room from where sheets and wool blankets are distributed.
Jim introduces me to Charlie Smith, a 56-year-old homeless man originally from Oklahoma. He's been in Salt Lake City since Sept. 15, moving into the homeless shelter the day it opened.
He works for the State Emergency Work Program on staff at the shelter, earning $100 every two weeks--enough to buy cigarettes, an occassional breakfast and enough to save for a trip back to Oklahoma.
Smith came most recently from Las Vegas, driven out of town by the authorities. "Couldn't stay out of jail," he says. "They don't want anybody there unless they're gambling or working."
Smith has been at the shelter long enough to make a few observations about the people staying here. Some are passing through. Some have drug and alcohol problems. Some are misfits and some don't know how to cope, he told me.
"But at least 95 percent of them put themselves in the positions they're in," Smith says.
"Haven't you?" I ask.
"I'm working," he says, insisting that there are too many residents here who aren't working and ought not be allowed to stay here. Smith believes they should be tossed out and forced to fend for themselves.
"I figure when they get hungry enough they'll work. I don't think the world owes anybody a living," Smith says.
Some see the homeless as free loaders living off all-too-generous public assistance, I say to Poulin. Do freeloaders deserve a shelter? I ask. It's not a question of who deserves shelter and who doesn't, he says.
"First of all, I think the purpose of the shelter is to provide a place for the homeless so they don't freeze on the street. When they get in here, that's when our job starts.
"Maybe he is just a freeloader, and if that's the case, we'll ask him to leave." But not before he's given an opportunity to demonstrate some effort to look for work, to develop a skill in school or college.
To that end, the shelter's case workers help residents look for work, get enrolled in school so that, ultimately, they can get out of the shelter.
"We're saying,'Hey, this isn't a home. . .let's get you working out in the community,'" Poulin said.
"So how'd you know I was a reporter," I ask a man who has pulled me aside to offer his analysis of how the shelter is managed.
"Word gets around here fast," says Dennis Storm, a 43-year-old "farm boy from South Dakota." He looks at me increduously when I ask him to spell his last name.
"Hey, everybody out of here," a staff member yells. Storm and I are interrupted by the clamor as a work detail comes into the TV room to clean up.
"Outta here," the staffer yells, as a few recalcitrant men continue sitting next to the TV. Everyone is cleared from the room soon, and half a dozen men move in to stack furniture, sweep the tile floor and mop up.
The room is cleaned thrice daily, the last time in the evening so that it is suitable to house 50 men, including myself, who will sleep there because the shelter doesn't have enough room in its dormitory.
Storm and I resume our conversation. He has worked a lot across the country and in the Salt Lake Valley but hasn't been able to land anything except temporary work since he came to the shelter in November.
I mention that many people criticize the homeless man because they say he really doesn't want to work.
"There's a lot of us who have had good jobs and we want 'em againm" he says. "If we want a job, damn it, help us find one."
Despite the respectable resume Storm says fhe has accumulated, looking for work isn't easy when you're homeless. Small things, such as a home address, suddenly become insurmountable barriers between unemployment and a job.
"When I go for a job, what's my address?" he asks me.
"210 Rio Grande Street," I say, using the shelter's street address.
That address sends red flags in employers' eyes, Storm says. Many employers know it's the shelter's street number and no one wants to hire a homeless man.
"So, how do you get around that?" I ask.
"How do you, how do you?" Storm shoots back.
"The only way we can do that is to ask employers not to discriminate," Poulin says. "Employers shouldn't be discriminating against people because they're homeless."
The community has come a long way in supporting the shelter, Poulin continues. They've financed its construction through private contributions and they continue to fund its operation, partially through more donations.
But there is a greater need, Poulin says.
"The real help they (the homeless) need is jobs; they don't want people's sympathy."
Storm and I survey the shelter. He calls the shelter a good living situation. He has a few complaints, like the way the staff locks half the bathroom at night, leaving five stalls for 330 men. The place is clearly crowded, but it is adequate, humane, safe.
I look around at a couple of hundred men congregating around army cots. Numbers are written on the tile floor to indicate where each cot is to be located. Personal belongings spill out from underneath beds and into narrow aisles. Dirty packs line the walls.
The shelter is filled with a constant din, which only partially syubsides when I try to go to sleep later. The noise consists of talking, laughing, music blasting from underneath someone's headphones.
There is a chorus of coughing. Some men cough so hared their legs lift into the air. Others wheeze deeply for minutes on end, fording their knees to their chests.
"Everybody's got a cold here. You'll have a cold tomorrow, guaranteed," Storm tells me. "Everybody's gotta have the tramp's cold."
The crowded conditions at the facility is able to provide another 120 guys a place to stay," Poulin says. Often, the shelter bulges with as many as 350 homeless men.
"But the bad side is that we have that many homeless people in our community. And there are even more.
"We can't just shut the doors," Poulin says. So far the shelter has been able to adequately provide for the hundreds flocking to its doors. Ultimately, however, crowded conditions must be addressed simply by getting the homeless back into the system, with some food, a job, a roof.
"Hi, I'm Rob Rice. I work for the Deseret News." I shake Ray Lenhart's hand.
"Oh yea, it's good you're working," Lenhart says, sitting up on his cot.
Storm tells him I'm planning on spending the night at the shelter.
"That's too bad. Deseret News must not pay much," he says.
Lenhart admist he is a 40-year-old cynic, to say the least.
"Thwe homeless people are all the rage these days...I just do it for the publicity," he says, noting that at dinner tonight at a nearby mission there was another news reporter.
But Lenhart, who is taking some trade classes at the Salt Lake Community College, is fairly circumspect about the homeless too.
"Behind just about everybody here is some kind of misfortune," he says.
I recall Smith telling me his leg was severed when he got beat up in 1950 and was thrown unconscious on a railroad track. He woke up when a train came by and the lower part of his left leg was gone. Storm's jaw was broken in three places last fall when someone beat him and ran off with more than $400 in cash. A 20-year-old man told fme he lost his wife and child in a car accident. Many men are Vietnam Veterans, sporting U.S. Marine Corps tattoos on their forearms.
"I havent been able to find the homeless composite," says Poulin. Although many have suffered through "crises," for the 330 men at the shelter that night, there are 330 different stories.
Alcohol and drug use, however, play a primary role in the homeless' lives, he said. Studies show 25 to 30 percent of the nation's homeless suffer alcohol and drug problems.
80 people suddenly line up around the main desk in the dormitory room. Lenhart tells me I'd better follow them so I can get a number for a cot and some clean linen.
"If there's anyone in your bed, just tell 'em to come up here with their bed card," a staffer yells. If they don't have one, they lose their bed and have to wait to see if there are others left over.
People cough. A man next to me slips his hand into a friend's pocket and extracts a can of beans. "Hey," the friend yells and grabs his can of beans back, laughing.
"OK, that's all the beds," a staffer says, meaning all the regular cots are taken. The rest of us, probably 65 men, have to wait for nearly a half hour for new numbers so we can get unassembled cots and blankets for the night.
"Robert Rice," a guy calls.
I give him my bed pass and he writer the number 62 on it. I take it to another line in a back room where I get a cot. I'm struck by the fact there is hardly room for my cot, but I look at an elderly man and gesture to his left.
"Sure," he says, and I set up my cot next to his. The room is filled with noise as cots are dropped to the floor, unfolded, set up. Some men swear at the cots they can't erect. In 10 minutes, however, nearly everyone has his cot arranged.
A man a few feet from me pulls the can of beans from his coat and laughs again. With his friend, the two go in search of a can opener.
"OK, gentlemen," a staffer yells over the noise. "If you want to talk you have to go into the TV room. There are people here who have to get up in the morning."
The talking subsides momentarily and then persists. The staffer returns.
"You do need to keep it down," he calls, yelling louder this time. "If you want to talk, go into the TV room." He leaves and the talking resumes.
I shake a clean sheet out and lay it on the cot and begain to lay another on top of it. Storm comes into the room.
"You wanna finish a full day with the homeless?" he whispers. Storm has a certain sense of drama about him.
"How?" I ask.
"Four thirty in the morning. Come with me to Cencor," a temporary employment service.
"Come wake me up," I say.
I lie down between the two sheets, pulling one over my eyes to eclipse the lights, which burn all night. I sleep restlessly, waking up when someone coughs or walks by and bumps my cot, as is done constantly. Sleep can rarely be restful here.
4:40 a.m., Tuesday
Storm kicks my cot and shows me his watch. I nod and get up, following him into the dormitory. He has been at the shelter long enough to have a permanent cot. From underneath it he pulls a notebook and a jacket and stuffs them in a plastic grocery bag--the proverbial luggage of the homeless.
We leave the shelter and begin walking briskly toward the employment center about seven blocks away.
"Why do you have to get up so early?" I ask Storm as we walk.
"They don't choose you for your ability, they chose you for your place in line," he says.
"I need to get work today. I gotta pay $13 storage fee," Storm says. He's got a bike and a backpack stored in a commercial storage unit.
I remark about the cold.
"It ain't cold. You should try sleeping outside at night," Storm says.
We arrive at the employment center and are waiting in the cold with a handful of other men. In 20 minutes, someone opens the employment service. Storm is first in line.
I shake Storm's hand and wish him good luck in getting some work. He says thanks and then eckons out loud that I learned something after a night in the shelter.
"I think you learned it ain't living in the lap of luxury; it isn't quite as good as they think it is."
I ask Poulin about the common notion that the homeless want to be homeless, want to live in shelters.
"It's a popular myth," he says. But living in a shelter, even a new, clean shelter like Salt Lake's, isn't what anyone in his right mind wants to do.
"After staying there yourself, is that where you want to live?