In December, I spent two weeks in downtown Salt Lake City. Late each night, I’d drive down 500 South on the way back to my hotel, and during those nightly drives, I couldn’t help but notice all the tents that had sprung up on the sidewalk.
As I drove swaddled in my warm jacket with the heater blasting, I pondered how the homeless could sleep outside in such cold weather. And as a business journalist, I was curious about what Salt Lake City businesses were doing to come up with homeless solutions.
My research began with a tour of the Rescue Mission of Salt Lake, which I would describe as emotional and gut-wrenching. At the shelter, I locked eyes with a quiet teenage girl standing in a corner. She quickly looked down at the floor, appearing utterly embarrassed.
She was soon joined by a clean-cut, normal-looking teenage boy carrying a backpack, who I assumed was her boyfriend. Being that it was during school hours, I wondered what brought those kids there, what was their story? I soon discovered, this article isn’t about homelessness, it’s about humanity.
Nonprofits On A Mission
According to the Mission’s executive director, Chris Crosswhite, we need every solution we can find―not just one―and that starts with compassion. Recognizing that we’re talking about human beings―somebody’s brother, sister, father, child, parent, aunt, or uncle. “We’re talking about a person, and if that was a person in your immediate family, how would you want your family to be treated?” says Mr. Crosswhite.
As for the causes of homelessness, Mr. Crosswhite cited poverty, illiteracy, low income, lack of education, lower life skills, mental illness, medical injuries, the economy, and traumatic life events, a common precursor to addiction.
I used to believe that most homeless people were addicts who had simply made poor life choices, but I was soon educated. After conducting interviews, I was repeatedly told that addiction is frequently preceded by a traumatic life event that ends up dominating the person’s life.
Cyndi Harris, who has a master’s degree in social work, is the supervisor at the Rescue Mission’s Women’s Center in Salt Lake City, serving homeless women and children in the community. Women, she explained, are usually driven to homelessness because of unhealthy relationships. She told me that 99 percent of the time, there’s trauma in their childhood.
“Romantic relationships, even platonic ones. They flee these unhealthy abusive relationships and choose homelessness over being in an abusive relationship,” says Ms. Harris.
Women need the power and support to alter their circumstances, and that kind of help isn’t simply about money. Women need a connection to resources. “We need to rebuild a woman from the inside, so she can manage the outside, which feels so unimaginable because the inside is so chaotic.”
Preston Cochrane is the executive director of Shelter the Homeless, which is currently developing three new homeless resource centers in the Salt Lake City Area with plans to open this summer. They are a part of a broader change to the city’s homeless response system, which focuses on transforming lives permanently. Some of the partners include Gardner Company, the Downtown Salt Lake City Alliance, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
While Mr. Cochrane cited the same causes of homelessness as Mr. Crosswhite, he added veterans, college students living out of their car or couch surfing, people coming back from the military, and lack of affordable housing to the list. People who go to the emergency room, who don’t have family nearby, and the medically frail, are vulnerable populations too, he says.
Cathleen Sparrow, the chief development officer at Volunteers of America in Utah says homelessness is one of the most pressing needs in the state. “Our ultimate goal is not to give people handouts, it’s to lead them to self-sufficiency,” says Ms. Sparrow. “Each person has a similar story that’s different… frankly, a lot of people are one or two paychecks or one emergency away from homelessness.”
Salt Lake City has critical resources like the Rescue Mission of Salt Lake, Volunteers of America Utah, Shelter the Homeless, and Catholic Community Services to not only provide a hot meal and shelter but long-term, sustainable solutions. However, these centers can’t do it alone. It takes the help of the community to pick up our fallen and help them stand on their own, and several Salt Lake City businesses are doing just that.
For-Profits Using Their Talents For Good
Steve Brand and Mike Doolin own Hillside Tire and Service where they repair the Rescue Mission’s vehicles at low or no cost. Every November they donate $1 for every tire sold. They donate hams during Christmas, as well as socks, underwear, and warm clothing throughout the winter. “It’s infectious, once you do it you want to keep doing it,” says Mr. Doolin.
“We went down there three years ago, the day of the Christmas party. Seeing these little kids and ladies and men going through stacks of used clothing, guys in line waiting for haircuts, it was a tear-jerker,” says Mr. Doolin. “Feeling like we had a little part in the success in helping these people get back on their feet―it’s a good feeling.”
Derrick Webster also uses his expertise to give back. He owns 15 Subway franchises throughout Salt Lake, Cache, and Davis counties and for the past 10 or 11 years, the local Subway franchisees have come together to host “Subway Day in the Park,” an event in Pioneer Park, where the franchises donate about 1,200 sandwiches to feed the community. “I’m called to give back to the community because of the many blessings I’ve received,” says Mr. Webster. The Rescue Mission of Salt Lake also contributes to the event by bringing in hair cutting services, free clothing, and other services that may be available to the less fortunate.
Henricksen/Butler, who provides office furnishings for commercial spaces, also have a deep desire to give back to the community. “We see the [homeless] issue. We’re right in downtown, so we definitely felt the impact,” says CEO, Dave Colling. Mr. Colling’s team took on the task of furnishing the three facilities for Shelter the Homeless. They are going to their big customers in the community who are moving, upgrading, or remodeling and asking them to donate lightly used furniture.
Many of their clients have already donated furniture to the cause including Mountain America Credit Union, Intermountain Healthcare, Fidelity Investments, Okland Construction, CB Richard Ellis, and Union Pacific.
Even national companies are using their talents to support Salt Lake City’s local homeless population. Google Fiber is supporting AmeriCorps VISTA to incorporate digital inclusion as a resource strategy for Shelter the Homeless. Jacob Brace, the community impact manager at Google Fiber says their work is around the digital divide. “The effort will result in a well-thought-out introduction to tech and the internet, empowering non-profit providers with technology access,” says Mr. Brace. The goal is to give the homeless a place where they can access the internet, receive digital literacy training, advice, and support.
Gail Miller, philanthropist, owner and chairperson of the Larry H. Miller Group of Companies, believes it’s imperative that businesses give back what they receive. That’s why the Miller Family Foundation is matching dollar for dollar donations of up to $10 million for Shelter the Homeless.
When I asked Ms. Miller about why she helps this particular cause, she said the basic reason is that we’re all God’s children. Those of us who can help should be helping those in need. “[Businesses] can look and see if they have ways that they can employ these people, or help them get to rehab where they become employable―that’s something that will have an immediate effect,” says Ms. Miller.