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Utah Mayor Suffers "Shocking Experience" After Going Undercover As Homeless Man

Amid President Obama's 'recovery', President Trump's 'awesome economy', and record high stock prices, Salt Lake City mayor Ben McAdams secretly entered the world of the homeless in Utah as he pondered a decision (that he knew would anger many residents) on the selection of a site for a third homeless resource center in his city.

As Deseret News' Katie McKellar reports, for four months, McAdams has kept a secret (keeping it out of headlines, hoping to avoid the perception, he said, of a "publicity stunt in the face of human suffering").

Back in March, just days before he was due by state law to select a third site for a new homeless resource center - a decision he knew would anger thousands of his constituents, regardless of his choice - McAdams left work on a Friday with no money or ID and walked to Salt Lake City's most troubled neighborhood.

Dressed in jeans, sneakers and a hoodie, the county mayor spent three days and two nights walking and sleeping among the homeless and drug-addicted in Salt Lake City's Rio Grande neighborhood.

One night on the street. One night in the shelter.

His experience was "shocking" on multiple levels, he said. And while he by no means meant his experience to be an "expose" on the Road Home shelter, an important stakeholder in homeless services reform, his stay did shed light on some troubling realities within the 1,062-bed shelter, including:

  • Blatant use of drugs inside the men's dorms, including his bunkmate injecting drugs into his arm - though he declined to discuss details about that encounter with the Deseret News.
  • He smelled what he assumed was smoke from drugs "all night long."
  • He witnessed violence - a fight between two men in the dorms, during which a man was dragged off of his bunk and hit his head on the concrete floor.
  • He didn't feel safe - and could see why someone would take their chances on the streets in 40-degree rainy weather rather than spend a night in the downtown shelter.

The county mayor has kept his experience private for months. But after the Deseret News learned of the overnight stays from a source and requested an interview, McAdams eventually — reluctantly — agreed to discuss it this week with the Deseret News and Salt Lake Tribune.

The purpose of the stay, McAdams said, was not to go undercover and expose the troubles homeless providers face while trying to serve Utah's most vulnerable. Rather, it was meant to help him "deepen" his understanding of the current homeless system before he decided which city would house a third homeless resource center.

"I needed to see firsthand, to understand the complexity of the recommendation I was being asked to make," he said.

 

The experience "instilled in me a conviction that we had to move forward," McAdams said, during a time when many of his constituents were pushing back against years of effort to reform the homeless system.

 

"There were many people saying, 'Back away and do nothing,'" McAdams said. "Seeing what I saw … was shocking, and I came away from this experience knowing we had to go forward, we had to change the system, that we as a community had kicked the can down the road for decades and just looked the other way."

Not disclosing who he was, McAdams said he and his employee spent the first night on a street outside the Rio Grande area to "understand why some people would choose not to go into shelter."

"It was cold — below 40s," the mayor said. When he woke up, it was raining. "You wonder why people would choose to do that, knowing that there were beds available in the shelter."

But the next night, McAdams understood why.

The Deseret News learned from two other people that after McAdams had checked into the men's dorms, he saw his bunkmate injecting drugs into his arm. When asked about that incident, McAdams declined to discuss it.

"One person told me to be sure not to use the restroom at night because it wasn't safe," McAdams added. The man didn't elaborate, but McAdams said he assumed it was a reference to sexual violence.

 

"I didn't feel safe," he said. "It was a fairly chaotic environment."

 

He added: "I certainly could understand why people would choose not to sleep there."

 

He said if he were addicted to drugs, he would know "the Rio Grande area is not the place to go" to kick the habit, adding that "drug dealing is at every corner."

Revamping the system, he said, "can't happen fast enough."

Of course, Salt Lake City, Utah is not alone...

Homelessness in San Diego has surged in recent years. A January tally put the number of transients in the city at over 5,600, up more than 10 percent from last year. The total number has risen more than 40 percent since 2014.

The chairman’s idea is for the city to construct temporary housing on the practice field of Qualcomm Stadium, where the San Diego Chargers played until 2016, and the San Diego State Aztecs play.

The number of homeless people in Los Angeles is skyrocketing. In just one year, the figures revealed that the homeless population in the city grew 20% while the numbers for the wider Los Angeles County were even higher at 23%.

As if looking at those numbers isn’t cringeworthy enough, The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority reported Wednesday that 6,000 homeless young people were tallied across the county in January, a 61% increase over the 2016 total. Most of the young people are ages 18 to 24. All the youth shelters have waiting lists and affordable housing is tough to find, even with a rent voucher, according to Heidi Calmus of Covenant House California, an international youth homeless services agency with a branch in Hollywood. “The system is overwhelmed,” Calmus said Tuesday night as she and a colleague, Nick Semensky, delivered toiletry bags and sandwiches to young people living in the streets.

Despite efforts to combat the problem, the number of homeless continue to go up.

And just like during the last economic crisis, homeless encampments are popping up all over the nation as poverty grows at a very alarming rate.

According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, more than half a million people are homeless in America right now, but that figure is increasing by the day.  And it isn’t just adults that we are talking about.  It has been reported that that the number of homeless children in this country has risen by 60 percent since the last recession, and Poverty USA says that a total of 1.6 million children slept either in a homeless shelter or in some other form of emergency housing at some point last year.  Yes, the stock market may have been experiencing a temporary boom for the last couple of years, but for those on the low end of the economic scale things have just continued to deteriorate.

Tonight, countless numbers of homeless people will try to make it through another chilly night in large tent cities that have been established in the heart of major cities such as Seattle, Washington, D.C. and St. Louis.  Homelessness has gotten so bad in California that the L.A. City Council has formally asked Governor Jerry Brown to officially declare a state of emergency.   And in Portland the city has extended their “homeless emergency” for yet another year, and city officials are really struggling with how to deal with the booming tent cities that have sprung up

There have always been homeless people in Portland, but last summer Michelle Cardinal noticed a change outside her office doors.

 

Almost overnight, it seemed, tents popped up in the park that runs like a green carpet past the offices of her national advertising business. She saw assaults, drug deals and prostitution. Every morning, she said, she cleaned human feces off the doorstep and picked up used needles.

 

 

“It started in June and by July it was full-blown. The park was mobbed,” she said. “We’ve got a problem here and the question is how we’re going to deal with it.”

But of course it isn’t just Portland that is experiencing this.  The following list of major tent cities that have become so well-known and established that they have been given names comes from Wikipedia

Most of the time, those that establish tent cities do not want to be discovered because local authorities have a nasty habit of shutting them down and forcing homeless people out of the area.

* * *

How is all this possible? With 'full employment' and record high stocks?