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Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Gina Cornia, executive director of Utahns Against Hunger, attends a summit on poverty for the 50th anniversary of AmeriCorps Volunteers in Service to America at the Utah Cultural Celebration Center in West Valley City on Thursday, Aug. 27, 2015.

WEST VALLEY CITY — It took a call to action from the Obama administration and a significant increase in federal funding.

But virtually ending chronic homelessness among veterans in Salt Lake City also required the boots-on-the ground efforts of 20-something AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer Elizabeth Oliver, who cultivated a pool of landlords willing to rent apartments to people who after serving their country had fallen on hard times.

On Thursday, Oliver shared her story during the 50th anniversary observance of AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) at the Utah Cultural Celebration Center. AmeriCorps VISTA is a national service program designed to fight poverty.

Oliver served with The Road Home for a year, working to bridge the gap between homeless veterans and the housing they needed.

Much of her time was spent on the telephone asking landlord after landlord, "Do you have any one-bedrooms available?"

Many property owners were eager to help because the idea of assisting people who had served their country and were experiencing homelessness resonated with them. It helped, too, that participating veterans had housing vouchers and case management.

After a while, "the community was getting excited. They were calling us back when they had open units," Oliver said.

The challenge to house homeless veterans played out on the national stage, with the mayors and Salt Lake and Phoenix engaged in a healthy competition as to which city could house each of its chronically homeless veterans first.

As exciting as the initiative became, "the most important part of all of it was we were handing keys to veterans who had experienced homelessness for quite some time," she said.

After Oliver's VISTA service ended, she was able to return to The Road Home as an employee, a housing specialist who works with veterans.

Kathy Carson, a VISTA volunteer in southeastern Utah from 1973-75, describes herself as "the VISTA who stayed and never left."

Carson, who is from Southern California, said working and living among members of the Navajo tribe in the Bluff area was transformative.

At the time, she was paid $99 every two weeks and tackled projects as diverse at teaching GED classes at a cafe and starting a sewing program using treadle sewing machines since there was no electrical power.

Carson said one of her first experiences in Bluff was looking out a window to see a family traveling by a horse-drawn wagon.

"I really felt like I stepped into the Twilight Zone," she said.

Part of her VISTA service involved teaching driver education — the book learning part, she said. A certified driving instructor taught the behind-the-wheel skills, but it was up to Carson transport the students to Blanding for their licensing exams since none of them had licenses to drive themselves.

Bluff became her home, and the former VISTA volunteer found other ways to give back, including becoming a schoolteacher, working as an emergency medical technician and volunteering with the community's fire department for 40 years.

Carson still volunteers at Bluff and Mexican Hat elementary schools and is a Girl Scout leader.

Mostly, she found lifelong friends who "opened their hearts and culture to me."

Salt Lake is one of five cities nationally where the national leaders of AmeriCorps VISTA, a program of the Corporation for National and Community Service, is celebrating the organization's golden anniversary.

“For 50 years, AmeriCorps VISTA has been at the forefront of helping communities across America,” said Paul Monteiro, director of AmeriCorps VISTA.

“AmeriCorps VISTA is a key example of what works in service — with a 50-year history on the front lines in the fight against poverty, including here in Utah. I look forward to seeing the continued impact of VISTA in this community.”

Gina Cornia, executive director of Utahns Against Hunger, is a VISTA alum. A number VISTA volunteers have worked with the nonprofit advocacy organization over the years.

Cornia, who grew up in southeast Idaho and attended the University of Utah, served inner-Houston from 1992-93, helping guide chronically homeless people into mental health services offered through the county's mental health authority.

Although she had volunteered with homeless and hunger programs in Utah as a college student and had traveled to South America for other service learning, Cornia had no exposure to urban poverty in the United States.

"It was a sobering experience for me to see the kind of urban poverty that the United States has. That was for me sort of this ah-ha experience," she said.

Cornia said the experience gave her a greater appreciation of "the breadth of the need in an urban setting. There were people, who despite how hard they worked, they just could not get out of this poverty trap and that mental health services were really core to helping people thrive."

The work of VISTA volunteers at Utahns Against Hunger has been instrumental in many of its initiatives, which include programs to allow people to further the buying power of food stamp benefits at farmers markets, urban farming and ongoing advocacy efforts.

"The young women that we have, they could be doing anything else. They could be in grad school anywhere. They could be doing really high-level things, and they are doing a year of VISTA. In one case, a second year of VISTA, dedicating two years to changing communities that they don't live in. I think that's remarkable. They're so passionate, young, energetic and full of ideas. It's great," Cornia said.

Email: marjorie@deseretnews.com