Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Travis Johnson wiped sweat from his nose as he helped dismantle the 8-foot high, graffiti-riddled plywood fence bordering the Road Home's outdoor playground.

In bold block letters on the outside perimeter, a message on the fence read: "Welcome to the Rio Grande neighborhood. Hope for the future gives us strength today."

Johnson said he's been living at the Road Home since August, ever since he spent his last dollar on traveling to Salt Lake City from New York, but when he arrived, his apartment fell through.

On Friday, he was still in search of a job — and he was determined to prove himself to Okland Construction, which sponsored the project to tear down the graffiti-covered fence and replace it with wire paneling.

"I'm willing to do everything they need to me to do," he said. "I want a job."

Johnson was one of a dozen Road Home residents participating in Friday's project, where 10 Okland Construction superintendents held unpaid internships doubling as a try-out to connect homeless individuals with possible construction job opportunities.

The project was part of the third "dignity of work" phase of Operation Rio Grande, the multi-agency effort to clean up the neighborhood around the downtown homeless shelter and connect homeless individuals to services.

"We'd love to find some future hires out of this," said Jeremy Blank, Okland Construction project executive. "But more importantly, we want to help some of these people who are maybe down on their luck or have lacked some confidence ... to let them know they have value."

Blank said he met with several Road Home residents that could be potential hires.

"You know, as I walked in the door today a gentleman who was homeless saw the vest and said, 'Hey, I used to work for Okland,'" Blank said. 'Twenty or 30 years ago he worked on one of our job sites, which is kind of humbling."

Okland Construction was approached by Steve Starks, president of the Utah Jazz who has been leading the committee coordinating Operation Rio Grande's third phase, and Blank said he was "happy to participate." Okland Construction donated time, manpower and materials toward the fencing project.

"As part of this phase, there's the concept that we need individuals that have small experiences with employers so they can model behaviors and learn small skills to prepare them for full employment," said Stephen Lisonbee, division director for the Department of Workforce Services' development division. "This (project) is one of many more in the future." '

Since the launch of the "dignity of work" phase last month, employment counselors from the Utah Department of Workforce Services have been working with residents of the Road Home to find job opportunities, Starks said.

Starks noted not everyone is ready or able to start working on a day's notice, so often it takes time to be job ready, whether that means addressing a drug addiction or becoming committed to go to work.

"But if we can create a series of steps they can follow, then they can get themselves in that position, that's what this is all about," Starks said, adding that Friday's project demonstrated that those who participated are work ready.

"We hope relationships are naturally formed out of this," Starks said.

Starks and House Speaker Greg Hughes — who has been driving the Operation Rio Grande effort — both took turns with a sledgehammer to pound some of the plywood panels loose.

"It's an exciting day," Hughes said, dressed in a ball cap and a hoodie. "Having people here proving their mettle, showing they're ready to get to work, I can't imagine a better scenario."