Nick Wagner, Deseret News
A homeless man walks past the Rio Grande Cafe in Salt Lake City on Monday, Oct. 3, 2016.

When the Salt Lake women's homeless shelter opened back in the 1980s, I was a fledgling reporter who couldn't believe I'd been invited to spend the night there to see how the shelter would run and meet some of the women staying there.

It was my first close encounter with homelessness, but it would be far from my last. My job has taken me to homeless camps and into the "hooches" individuals craft into makeshift shelters. I've visited case-managed temporary apartments and once interviewed a family living in a car. I've strolled river banks and streets chatting with those who live there.

My nervousness that night at the shelter dissipated as I met the women, though my presence made some of them nervous. I remember two especially vividly: Anne, who had recovered from cancer, but not from the cost, and Meg, who fled an abusive relationship and told me she had battled depression as long as she could remember. They curled each others' hair as we sat by the window and looked out at less-savory street life below.

The group of women was not unlike any group, really. In a crowd, from church events to business conferences, you'll probably find women who are gregarious and women who are quiet, women who are impressively focused and women who seem a little "off."

My thoughts about the homeless people I've met are written in my head, but also on my heart. They are people with severe challenges. Many of them struggle with burdens I've never known, including abusive childhoods and mental illness. And while my life feels more "together," I am not immune from a devastating event that could turn me upside down. My savings wouldn't last too long. My biggest asset — and one many of the homeless folks I met lack — is family members who would try to keep me off the street should such upheaval occur.

Officials encourage those who want to impact homelessness to donate directly to programs for homeless people. I think that's an extraordinarily worthy cause. But I still stubbornly balk at being told not to follow my heart if I decide to help someone I encounter by chance who's clearly in need.

To be clear, I don't like panhandlers. I think many, maybe even most, misrepresent themselves as homeless and helpless when they might be neither. And I've encountered some pretty aggressive and obnoxious people who are asking for money.

But no homeless shelter system will ever meet all the needs I've seen on the street. For one thing, there are too many people in crisis for this community — perhaps most communities — to pretend they're all being helped. The numbers are growing and homelessness is moving into new neighborhoods, an occurrence being met with more suspicion than compassion.

We should also contribute to programs that provide mental health services and substance abuse treatment. We should write checks to efforts that boost transportation options for financially fragile individuals and to programs that provide job training to fragile families at risk of homelessness. We should support businesses that give people in crisis opportunity — and let those businesses know that's a priority we value. No one system is the gatekeeper all those in need will be able to use — or will even know to access.

7 comments on this story

Some needs are so basic we don't usually even think of them. Not long ago on my "Next Door" community page, someone lamented that people camping by the river go to the bathroom outside. I don't like it, but I wonder where they are supposed to go. Most businesses lock their facilities for all but paying customers.

I understand why. No one wants to maintain a restroom, especially for people who aren't customers. They don't want people loitering and they worry about drug users.

We have to figure out how to deal with the challenges and still be kind. When a crime occurs, call the police. But being homeless is not a crime. I worry that collectively our compassion muscle seems to be atrophied. That's one we're always going to need.