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Olympian Effort to Handle Homeless

Social services: As the Games swell the ranks of the unfortunate, Utah makes an unusual effort to care for them.

January 31, 2002|TOM GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SALT LAKE CITY — Construction worker Michael Fletcher arrived here from Idaho with hopes of finding work in the Olympic economy but instead is standing in a soup kitchen line.

Fletcher is among the city's new homeless, a population that is expected to increase by 20% during next month's Winter Games. Some, such as Fletcher, came searching for Olympic employment. Others have lost their jobs, victims of the recession and terrorism's toll on the tourist economy. Still others were evicted from their motels and apartments by landlords who are bumping up rents to profit from the Olympics.

The homeless huddling in the cold for food and shelter present an image an Olympic city might strive to cloak. Salt Lake City is putting on its finest civic face--erecting fanciful public art and hanging huge banners from the sides of buildings depicting athletes in competition. Downtown especially glistens at night when trees decorated with white lights shimmer against the fresh snow.

Yet as the city prepares to take the world spotlight Feb. 8, it is proving as hospitable to the down-and-out as it is to the moneyed.

Fletcher is receiving shelter and food in a complex of homeless service providers fully visible to tourists visiting downtown's newest upscale shopping complex. He received a voucher for a new pair of work boots and was given a bus pass so he could look for a job.

The city has gathered hundreds of volunteers to help the homeless and last week opened a new emergency homeless shelter--not in some distant suburb but just a few blocks from where the figure skaters and ice dancers will compete.

It's the first time, officials say, that an Olympic host city has added an emergency shelter--with 450 beds--to accommodate the expected overflow of homeless people.

The opening of the shelter--financed with city, county and state funds--stands in contrast to Atlanta, where in advance of the 1996 Summer Olympics, police arrested 10,000 homeless people. Homeless advocates complained that the tactics were intended to scare the homeless away or cajole them to lay low during the Games. Officials there also offered free one-way bus tickets under a clean-the-streets program euphemistically called, "Project Homeward Bound."

Salt Lake City instead is putting out the welcome mat. "We respect the human and civil rights of everyone, including the homeless, during these Olympics," said Mayor Rocky Anderson, a former attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union. "We won't be doing roundups or anything like that. This community is very caring toward the homeless."

The ACLU said it has received no complaints of mistreatment from homeless people.

The city and the surrounding county have a long, established history of caring for the homeless. A coalition of 40 public, private, church and charitable organizations tend to an estimated 2,500 homeless people who live here.

It's now bracing for as many as 500 more, said Sheila Walsh-McDonald, chairwoman of the Salt Lake County Homeless Coordinating Council.

"We think we're going to be the first Olympics city to be prepared to handle the homeless," she said.

Salt Lake City is hardly a target for the migrating homeless, given its cold winters and Utah's tightfisted welfare system. Its homeless population is relatively small, in part because the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose members make up 70% of Utah's population, admonishes its followers to be responsible for themselves and, if they run into financial crises, to turn first to family before seeking church or civil assistance.

But not everyone has family to turn to. Robert Aldrich, 45, lost his job in October as a food and beverage director at an upscale hotel in Park City, 30 miles southeast of here. Business there plummeted after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York City and the Pentagon.

With no paycheck and dwindling savings, he moved from a mountain rental condominium to a Salt Lake City house he shared with two other men. He got a part-time telephone job for $8 an hour. Unable to make his rent, he now sleeps in his car.

"This town is a piece of cake to be homeless in," he said while waiting for lunch at the St. Vincent de Paul center, known locally as St. Vinny's. "We're almost coddled. I'm getting three meals a day, and I could get six if I wanted. There aren't any skinny homeless people in Salt Lake."

Lynette Phillipsen's take on Salt Lake City was less sunny. Phillipsen, 50, arrived in town 10 days ago from Arizona with $11 in her purse. She ended up at the Road Home, the city's largest homeless shelter. "I think it's cruel, the way the homeless are treated here," she said. "The shelters don't have kitchen facilities, and to eat you're treated like cattle--coming in two at a time."

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