Salt Lake City homeless population has country-wide roots

Watch a video about Salt Lake City’s homeless population.

Story and multimedia by PARKER LEE

You do not have to look for very long to find people living on the streets or begging for money in downtown Salt Lake City. Whether it be in front of Wal-Mart, Temple Square or elsewhere, homeless people will be present.

Some of them have a few things in common. Most obviously, they do not have homes. They can’t find work. In many cases, they have family.

There are also characteristics of each homeless person that make them unique, such as age and gender. The methods they use to survive without a job or shelter vary from person to person.

But where these people are from might be the most intriguing aspect of their lives. Many homeless people in Salt Lake are not native to Salt Lake City, or even Utah. Yet they are all “living” here for one reason or another.

Cathy is a homeless, middle-aged, woman who lives and begs in Salt Lake, specifically near the Wal-Mart on 1300 South and 500 West. She does not call Utah home. Cathy is an Arizona native.

“I came here from Arizona with my boyfriend,” Cathy said. “My grandkids, I have two of them, they are still in the southern part of Arizona.”

Cathy misses the warm weather of Arizona. “It is tough here when it rains or snows,” she said. “It never snows in Arizona where I’m from, and it hardly ever rains.”

Fellow Arizonian panhandler Samantha also finds the Utah climate to be a bit harsh at times. “It is hard to be comfortable living outside when the ground is wet,” Samantha said.

Samantha has a difficult time panhandling, so she goes to Temple Square where there is a high volume of foot traffic. But she has a particularly challenging time acquiring food- because she is diabetic. That makes asking for food almost too hard, so she simply asks for money.

Samantha’s situation is complicated even more by the fact that she has two kids.

Another easy-to-spot local homeless person living downtown is a woman who refers to herself only as Ms. Burnet. With her brightly colored beanie with ear flaps and coat to match, it is hard to miss her walking up and down State Street. She is also not originally from Utah.

“I came here from Ohio several years ago,” Ms. Burnet said. “I don’t remember exactly when I got here.”

“Tall Tom” is another homeless individual in the Salt Lake area. He can be seen at or around Spring Mobile Ballpark. He has a long, shaggy, brown beard dusted by streaks of gray. Tom wears a baseball hat and stands well over six feet tall, earning him his nickname.

Tom is in Utah from the great state of Colorado. He is here by himself and has less contact with his family than the other three. He said it is quite possible that they don’t even know he is in Utah.

“They are spread all over,” Tom said. “But we haven’t talked for years. I would be shocked if they knew I wasn’t in Colorado.”

Tom has been here for two or three years and has not had a home the whole time he has been here. He says it is hard to find work here, which makes finding shelter hard.

All four of these homeless people are from out-of-state. But the reasons for coming here are different for each.

For Cathy, the lack of employment in Arizona was the driving force. “Me and my boyfriend couldn’t find any jobs down there,” she said. “We thought it might be better up here.”

Samantha and her kids are not necessarily here by choice. “We were up here just temporarily,” she said. “But then we couldn’t get enough money to go back to Arizona.” So her family is stuck here in the Beehive State, at least that is what caused them to stay in the first place.

Ms. Burnet, who is here by way of Ohio, did not give a reason as to why she decided to come to Utah specifically.

“No reason, I just wanted to leave Ohio,” Ms. Burnet said. “I felt like I needed to leave my hometown and get away. This is just where I ended up.”

As for our friend Tall Tom, he has bounced around quite a bit. He calls claims Colorado as being where he is from, but that is because he stayed there longer than any other place. Utah is where he landed this time.

There does not appear to be any correlation from the four transients as to why they came here. As it turns out, they did not come to Utah because of any one reason. But perhaps their staying in Utah has a common thread.

Tall Tom has found the people to be fairly understanding of his situation.

“Well, people do sometimes give me work,” Tom said. “And I do not make a ton of money begging, but I get at least enough to scratch by most of the time.”

For Ms. Burnet, her interaction with the people of downtown Salt Lake has played a role in keeping her here.

“I do have to beg for money, but I don’t mind it,” Ms. Burnet said. “I get to meet a lot of interesting people. And nobody is too mean.”

Samantha did not come to live here by choice, but she has stayed here by choice. She is able to obtain at least some necessities for her and her children.

“It is not easy and I wish there was another way,” she said. “But it isn’t the worst place to do this I guess. Some of the people who walk by give me change and money.”

Cathy and her boyfriend have remained in Utah, away from her grandkids. They had hoped things in Utah would be better than in Arizona. And they have been, though maybe not by much.

“He (her boyfriend) is able to find day jobs sometimes,” Cathy said. “And when I’ve been out here with my sign, people have been really generous.”

Cathy also said they occasionally get some help for shelter.

“The motel over here is letting us stay for a couple nights,” she said. “We can’t stay for very long, but it’s nice we get a few nights inside.”

There are undoubtedly many factors at play that keep the homeless in Utah. But our homeless foursome has identified the generosity they’ve been given by passersby as the main culprit. An environment has been created where the residents here can have compassion on their fellow men.

This attitude towards the homeless has given Cathy hope and positivity.

“We will get the help we need,” she said. “We just have to stay positive and keep trying and we’ll be fine.”