Last winter was devastating for the unsheltered population of Salt Lake City. We had hundreds of people on the street in freezing temperatures. People were freezing to death or losing parts of their bodies due to frostbite. One would think that by having that kind of experience we would be better prepared for this winter. However, there are no plans in place except for the possibility of a sanctioned campground with 50 temporary pods. So many in Salt Lake City are worried about what this winter is going to look like.
Even though there are Salt Lakers, and I recently met one in a coffee shop, who live in their bubble and don’t concern themselves with the suffering of the homeless, there are organizations and individuals who deeply care and want to help the disadvantaged. One of them is Unsheltered Utah, a non-profit organization that goes out on the streets, meets the unsheltered people and provides needed resources. In December of 2022, in cooperation with other non-profits, they opened an emergency warming shelter in the common area of First United Methodist Church. Since new homeless shelters were banned in Salt Lake City last winter, they called this project “Movie Nights”. They showed movies for 33 nights through the 2022-2023 winter saving lives. Over 400 volunteers were involved providing food, coats, blankets, tents, etc.
Wendy Garvin, the President/Executive Director of Unsheltered Utah came on the Utah Stories podcast to tell us about the project and what she plans to do this winter.
The city council and Mayor Mendenhall passed a moratorium on building any new campgrounds, warming facilities, or ways to shelter the homeless. So Unsheltered Utah used a “legal loophole” by calling their program “Movie Nights”. The Genesis Project was the first to do this and Unsheltered Utah was inspired by it and decided to host “Movie Nights” themselves.
Garvin said they called the city to say they were going to run a shelter, wondering if they were going to be shut down. And the city responded “It’s not a building fit for human habitation”, and Garvin said, “It’s a church so you guys can’t really come in and check, can you”? And it was left at that.
Crash, an unsheltered man, really struggled on the streets last winter. He shared his story of survival with Utah Stories. “Crash is a great example of the type of people that we would help. There’s a lot of people who access the shelter system and are just fine in it, but there’s a percentage of people who live on the street who just don’t do well in the shelters,” said Garvin.
Why Couldn’t The State Homeless Coordinator Find an Operator?
The city proposed a sanctioned campground with 50 temporary pods, which could help at least a percentage of the unsheltered population get out of the cold. However, they could not find an operator for the campground. Unsheltered Utah was one of the applicants. Even with the track record of successfully managing the “Movie Nights” and saving dozens of lives, they were not approved. What was the reasoning behind the city’s decision? “We just don’t have the money for it. And so we have the experience of running the movie nights, we have the ability to staff the program. We have the knowledge and experience, but we don’t have the money,” Garvin said.
Garvin, however, is determined to provide the funds to help Unsheltered Utah run the sanctioned camps. “We’ve approached the bank, I’m actually attempting to mortgage my house so that I can put that money upfront because to be fair, I trust that the state will pay me back,” Garvin said.
The loss last winter was so horrific that according to Garvin even Unsheltered Utah’s effort to make a change wasn’t enough, “Well, we also had people who came in and did not make it every night. And some of those people lost limbs, they got frostbite and they lost feet. We saw somebody who lost half of a hand and several people who lost fingers and toes. So there was a lot of loss last winter, even for those that we did provide services to sometimes,” Garvin said.
To support Unsheltered Utah go to their website.
Join us on Thursday, November 2nd, at 6 pm at the Brewies Cinema Pub for the screening of the documentary film A Voice for the Unsheltered and the panel discussion about the homeless problem in Salt Lake City. Your voice deserves to be heard. Get your movie passes here.
Watch the trailer.