Former Utah Gov. Olene Walker has been out of the mansion three years but she still feels very much at home working for affordable housing.
After receiving the Salt Lake County Homeless Coordinating Council's Lifetime Achievement Award on Wednesday, Utah's first female governor took a moment to return the praise to all of those who help. She was especially thankful to the coalition of private groups and city, county and state agencies that work to make housing more affordable and homes for the homeless a reality.
"The issue is still very near and dear to my heart," said Walker, who is the namesake of Utah's housing trust fund for low-income loans. "To think how far we've come, I just have to give it a 5-star effort."
Walker said housing care for low-income families and the homeless has been part of her public and private agencies since 1980. "It's just remarkable that we can point to so many front-line efforts to truly help people all around the state."
A special housing for the homeless coalition has set 2014 as the goal to end homelessness in Utah. In February, 84 more units in South Salt Lake will open. Another 200 units will open, including 50 apartments for families, in the old Ramada Inn in downtown Salt Lake next October. This past April, 100 apartments were opened on 500 West.
"Housing first seems a novel concept give the homeless a place to get a good night's sleep, a place for their belongings and a base, so many things in the rest of their lives just seem to stabilize," Walker said. "Some will always choose to be homeless, but we should continue to do what we can for them, not just at Christmas time, but in little ways every day."
She said the response to the need is tinged with a personal concern that not enough is being done for armed forces veterans. Many of them are among the homeless, with a lot of them suffering from some form of mental illness that is often attributable to their service.
Time devoted to the most downtrodden was highlighted Wednesday during Walker's award presentation. Walker is credited with single-handedly bolstering the state's emergency shelter efforts during the 2002 Olympic Winter Games.
She missed a formal gubernatorial appearance in Park City one evening during the Games because she stopped at the expanded shelter site in Salt Lake to see how things were going.
"I'll never forget that night," said Matt Minkevitch, director of The Road Home shelter and transitional housing service in Salt Lake. "She pulled up in this very impressive limousine with police escort. She was late already, and I don't think she ever made her appearance because she was here, without public knowledge or press coverage, meeting each and every volunteer who had come here from all over the country to help us out."The work of the fund continues. This past May, the housing fund governing board approved $2.2 million for the purchase, renovation and construction of 66 affordable multifamily units and 41 single units for various communities statewide.