Monday, August 10, 2015

Giving HOPE to the homeless in Salt Lake with The Legacy Initiative


Sorry for the long delay! I will be bringing this blog back from the dead. Normally, this is a place where I post things I find that are fun, geeky, interesting (at least to me) and film/tv reviews. However, today I want to post something a lot more serious and very important to me. I want to share with you an experience that I had while serving the homeless in SLC, Utah over the weekend. After this, we'll get back to the geekery, but I ask you to please read and share if it moves you to do so. Thanks!

I have been serving the homeless in Salt Lake City with The Legacy Initiative since November of 2014. The Legacy Initiative of Utah’s mission is to fight hunger, provide humanitarian aid, and educate people through community partnerships—not just for today, but for our future. Our job is to serve others, offer friendship to those who need it most, and inspire others to do the same. We want to give hope to those whose situation seems bleak.

Once a month, we gather together at a commercial kitchen and make 900-1,200 bean-and-cheese burritos, fill up multiple containers of ice water, create hygiene packs, and organize the outreach for the day.

In addition to the burrito outreach, I have been joining Legacy Initiative members at St. Vincent’s Kitchen every Thursday afternoon for their lunch service. The lunch service lasts one hour, and we often serve 400-500 individuals, including veterans, single adults, and children. We buy 300-400 bottles of water, 300+ packages of crackers/granola bars, razors, and basic hygiene items and give them to the homeless as they leave after the lunch.

We also try to talk to individuals about the HOST (HomelessOutreach Service Team) Program that takes place across the street at the Police Resource Center at 1:00 pm. At the HOST Program, service providers can help the attendees find jobs and share information about low-income housing opportunities, and the Legacy Initiative will help them get clothing that fits properly and basic living essentials for those moving into housing. 

The homeless in Salt Lake City have a deep mistrust of the police and are wary of the HOST program. Some believe it’s a setup for a sting operation and don’t want to even go near the building. The former Deputy Chief and his officers would tell attendees to HOST meetings that unless they had a murder warrant or were a danger to themselves or others, the police were not immediately concerned about their past records. Their mission was to help the individuals get off the street permanently, and sending them to jail for minor offenses was a waste of time and resources. The officers would ask the attendees about issues on the streets, what was working, and what could be done better. The results were trust, respect, hope, and dignity.

The Legacy Initiative members have spent the last six months trying to help build bridges between the homeless and the police, and I have personally seen 5 or 6 individuals go from homeless desperation to working full-time jobs and living in their own apartment. Unfortunately, all that hard work and effort may be coming to an abrupt and disappointing ending.

Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker has largely ignored the homeless issue and, to a larger degree, the drug dealing in the downtown area. In his seven years in office, the problem has gotten worse and worse, and his political rivals have been hitting him hard on this issue. With the November election on the horizon, the mayor has begun addressing the issue, but he seems intent on using a sledgehammer instead of a targeted laser. The Deputy Chief from HOST was reassigned to another department, and the word from officers and multiple sources I won’t reveal, say that it was because the mayor doesn’t want police to be involved in any kind of social outreach. His officers were helping the homeless learn about job opportunities, occasionally taking groups of 3-4 to job sites or interviews, and hosted a bi-weekly all you can eat breakfast for those that attend HOST meetings along with an additional homeless person. These actions were restoring hope, dignity, and self worth to the homeless, and the results were clear to see, but the city has decided that now the HOST officers will now be riding bicycles on the street, and the city is hiring eight social workers to advise and help the homeless. There will be more officers on the streets in the Rio Grande and Pioneer Park area who will be working hard to arrest the drug dealers and users.

This all sounds great on the surface, but success will be determined in the execution. The new Deputy Chief is a self-proclaimed “hard a**” and that seems to be the theme his officers are going to take while patrolling the streets.

On our monthly outreaches, we stress to our volunteers that we are there to offer food in a dignified and loving way. As we walk our assigned routes, we simply ask the people we meet if they are hungry, need a hygiene kit, or water. We also collect garbage from the street. We also ask that the homeless throw away the tin foil from the burrito and any fruit cores or skins.

I always meet with the HOST officers the few days before the outreach and let them know that we will have over 100 volunteers on the streets, but we will be organized, friendly, and will move rapidly through the area so as to not cause problems. The HOST officers have approved of our efforts and have actually spread the word to the regular officers about what we are doing. I have been doing these outreaches since November, and I have never seen or experienced a problem with the homeless or the police until last month.

My team was moving north along Rio Grande, and we were nearing the corner near St. Vincent’s and the Road Home. This corner is notorious for drug deals and drug use, and we moved off the sidewalk and onto the street to still serve, but not walk through the middle of this group. A police officer came running over and began yelling at myself and my team. He told us that we were not welcome in the area, that we were doing more harm than good, that we should take our “s***” over to the Road Home and donate it there, and to get the “f*** off his streets.” He yelled that our tin foil would be used for drug use, that we were loitering, and he threatened to arrest us.

I quickly instructed my team to move to the west side of the street to remove us from the situation. The officer yelled that I was “F***ing jaywalking” and he was considering arresting me. I replied that I was just trying to move my team away to de-escalate the situation, and he responded that if I argued with him I could be tasered and arrested. He then saw a homeless woman crossing the street and yelled, “Didn’t you hear what the f*** I told them?! Move your a** to the f***ing crosswalk or I’ll throw your a** in jail!” 

Once we turned the corner, I apologized to my squad and thanked them for remaining calm during the encounter. Homeless individuals told us that they appreciated our help and food and hoped that the police interaction wouldn’t keep us from our outreaches. They told us that the police had been particularly aggressive the past few weeks, and they were worried that it was going to become the normal operating procedure.

This past Saturday, I once again led a team down the center of Rio Grande, and we were once again stopped by the police at the corner by the Road Home. Three officers walked over and asked who was in charge. I replied that I was the squad leader and asked if there was a problem. An officer told me I was breaking several laws and that I was in trouble.

I asked him what laws specifically I was in violation of. He replied that our tin foil that the burritos were wrapped in would be used by the homeless to “chase the dragon” after we left. I asked if tin foil was illegal, and he replied that no it wasn’t. I stated that multiple items could be used as drug paraphernalia, including soda cans that were easy to obtain.  He then said that two months ago, sixty homeless individuals developed food poisoning after one of our outreaches. I replied that the food poisoning actually occurred at St. Vincent’s and it had happened two weeks after our outreach that month. I told the officer that we have a food handler’s permit, the food was made in a commercial kitchen, and that all food safety measures had been taken. He then said that we were loitering and clogging up the sidewalk. I replied that my team had been moving rapidly down the street, and it wasn’t until he stopped us that anything was backed up.

As the officer continued to question me, members of the homeless community walked over to see what was happening, and my team continued to quietly and politely pass out food to those in need. One mother had a small baby, and one of my team members gave her socks for the child and helped her put them on his feet. The mother began to quietly cry and thanked her for her compassion and the socks.

The officer loudly told me that “these people” have enough and didn’t need our food, hygiene kits, or socks. When he told me they had plenty of food, one of the homeless yelled “bullsh*t” and several nodded in agreement. I told the officer that the majority of the homeless eat the burritos immediately, and some even ask for more because they are so hungry, so there is definitely a need. He told me that we were adding to the garbage on the streets, and I pointed out that we had already had two bags half full of garbage we had collected that wasn’t even from our food. He did thank us and say he appreciated that. But, then he then said that I should instruct my team to continue down the street, open the sidewalk, and he would continue to talk to me. I told him that I was their squad leader, that they were volunteers, and I would not abandon them. I then got on my two-way radio and called for the president of The Legacy Initiative to meet me on the corner to help with the situation.

The great thing was, we had a professional camera crew with us from California that were documenting our efforts as part of a new web series about homelessness across the country. The officer was obviously upset that he was on camera, but continued to tell us that we were a nuisance. He said that we may see the homeless as “people down on their luck”, but he sees them as “criminals, vandals, and drug users.” The three officers detained my team for almost twenty minutes, and we were finally allowed to move on once the president of Legacy arrived.

As we began to move, we saw a mother with a small boy. They had both eaten a burrito and enjoyed an apple. The mother told her son to thank us for the food, and he did so with a huge smile and a wave.

For the second month in a row, I had to apologize to my squad for the experience. I told them they had handled themselves with grace, professionalism, and dignity while I was detained. I thanked them for keeping calm and keeping each other safe.

As my team continued our route, I saw four individuals shooting up with needles as well as several drug deals. I rapidly moved my team past those groups and didn’t allow them to stop and offer food.

I learned later that two additional officers joined the conversation with the president of Legacy (for a total of five officers) and detained him for an additional 30-35 minutes. The police ended up harassing our volunteers for almost an hour for offering food and hygiene to those in need, while wasting the opportunity to actually stop those drug deals and other actual crimes in the area. At the end of his route, the President of Legacy saw a man with severe sores on his feet, and Travis stopped to help medicate and bandage this man's wounds. That's the kind of people we have on our team, and why I am so proud to call them family.

After we returned to our staging area, another team told me how an officer accused a young man of stealing a bicycle he was riding. Several homeless told me how they had been stopped, searched, and had their information run through the computers to check for warrants without any probable cause. The police are definitely cracking down, and the result is they are simply spreading the homeless out across the Salt Lake City area. We are seeing them more on Main Street, Fourth South, and the surrounding areas. We aren’t dealing with the causes and the core issues, but rather spreading out the issue over a wider area to make it appear smaller.

In spite of my recent encounters with these officers, I have the utmost respect for the police. I believe they have an incredibly difficult and stressful job. I understand the difficulty in policing the homeless, especially since a lot of them have mental issues that the police aren’t necessarily equipped to handle. On the other hand, I also believe that the police swore an oath to protect and SERVE the community. They shouldn’t view the homeless as criminals and threats, instead of humans that are vulnerable and need hope, compassion, and deserve to be treated with dignity. The homeless are becoming even more worried about the police and the delicate trust is being undone.

Recently, police officers confiscated shopping carts and took them back to the local grocery stores they belong to. This is another example of something sounding good on paper, but the reality of the story wasn’t reported in the media. The officers confiscated the materials from the carts and put everything in a large pile. The homeless were told that if they wanted the materials back, they could climb through the pile and get them. Already embarrassed and scared, no one took the offer, and many decided to just try to replace their items. Who would want to climb through a pile of everyone else’s materials, under the eye of the police, and even if they claimed them, they had no place to put them.

The city has taken an empty building in the Rio Grande area and will allow the homeless to store their items there for free. It’s a great idea, but again the city is falling short in execution and foresight. The homeless are only allowed access to their items for a few hours during the day, and their items are stored in large garbage cans. Nothing helps restore hope and dignity like climbing into a garbage can to get a change of clothes or leave a backpack.

Our city is in a state of flux, and we are struggling with a very large issue of homelessness. There is no easy answer since this is such a multifaceted problem, but I fear we are going to make the situation worse, because those in charge of local government are more interested in scoring political points than helping those in need. We have officers that see criminals instead of people in need, a media that turns a blind eye to the situation, and a local community that is largely apathetic. The Mayor cites record low levels of “chronic homelessness” and while the numbers are true, you have to look at how these numbers are created. To be “chronically homeless” a person must have a disabling condition and has been homeless for at least one year continually or four times in three years. If you don’t fit in this category, they don’t count you. So, they can say we have less than 200 “chronically homeless” and have no “chronically homeless” veterans, but the reality is the homeless population is actually growing in SLC, and all you have to do is come to St. Vincent’s to give food, drive behind Rio Grande and see the camps, walk up Main Street and see people panhandling, drive up 400 south or by the library, and you’ll see what I mean.

So, I will continue to feed the homeless, to distribute water, to give encouragement, respect, and hope to those who need it most. I will meet with them at St. Vincent’s and learn about their needs, listen to their stories, encourage them to attend HOST meetings to learn about the success that others have achieved and how they too can escape the streets. I will stand with my Legacy family and tell the stories for those that can’t. I will do my best with what I have for as long as I’m able. That’s all I can do, but if I can change one life, it will all be worth it.

Our team met InglewoodFilms Allen who was out filming on his own and he joined us for a short while and created this video. Please view and share.


Stephan said...

For further reading, here's my take on the story.

Stephan said...

Good work, Tracy.