The holidays are a time for generosity and compassion, especially when it comes to our neighbors experiencing homelessness. A study by the Department of Workforce Services shows that Utah’s homeless population increased by 12% between 2019 and 2020 — and that was before the pandemic. Now, in the last week of 2020, this percentage has risen as COVID-19 has forced Utahns into unemployment. Danny Gomez, an unhoused man in Ogden, recently told the Standard-Examiner, “We don’t have nowhere to live, no income coming, no family to help us.”
Many Salt Lake City shelters are high-risk zones for contracting the coronavirus, and public facilities and organizations that were safe havens for the unhoused have been shut down or reduced their capacities to accommodate virus guidelines. Moreover, as part of Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall’s COVID-19 winter plan, camp clean-ups have taken a harsh toll on our homeless population. As housing access and homeless services continue to be minimal, sleeping outside in the cold is a harsh reality for many of our vulnerable neighbors.
The pandemic has taken a lot from us — plans, connections, stability and so on. We’ve all had to make sacrifices. But that doesn’t mean we can’t give back to our community. Even the smallest acts of kindness can make a difference for our homeless neighbors. If we’re fortunate enough to still be living under a roof despite the debilitating year, we’re likely able to help our local homeless population through donating, volunteering and advocacy — just in time for the holidays.
Many homeless people are projected to be living outside this winter season. If you can, consider donating a box of old jackets and sweaters to the Rescue Mission of Salt Lake — it’s better than letting them collect dust in your basement. The Rescue Mission of Salt Lake distributes at least 60,000 clothing articles annually, and this year especially, they urge the public to help as the pandemic has stalled donations. The organization offers the option of contactless, socially-distant donation drop-offs.
Those of us without clothes to donate might have some spare time on our hands now that winter break has started. Consider clocking some hours volunteering at a local homeless resource center that strictly enforces COVID-19 guidelines. Volunteers of America Utah enforces mask-wearing and social distancing and checks the temperature of each person that comes into their facility, as detailed in their COVID-19 message. While volunteering positions are now limited, applications are still open. Your job could range from sorting donations to serving food to the homeless.
If you have the means of donating a lot this year, whether money or clothes or time, then do it. But even giving away one clothing item or hygiene product or an hour of service to a local homeless shelter or resource center could make the ultimate difference for one of our unsheltered neighbors.
Most importantly, we need to advocate and stick up for our homeless this season. Some forget that these people are human beings — they are just as deserving of our sympathy as everyone else. Just recently, the Salt Lake County Health Department cleared out the Rio Grande homeless camp — displacing dozens of people and leaving them stranded with no services yet again. No one deserves to be treated like this, especially people who have already lost so much.
While donating and volunteering makes an immediate difference for our fellow Utahns experiencing homelessness, we need policy changes and accessible housing and services if we want to help them in the long run. People could die this winter. Instead of allocating funds for law enforcement to arrest unsheltered people, let’s advocate for that money to be used for housing and resources for the homeless, including treatment options for substance abuse and mental health, which can help our neighbors get back on their feet.
We can all give a little this holiday season. Whether through donations, volunteering at a homeless shelter or spreading awareness and lobbying our local representatives, there’s something everyone can do to help Utah’s homeless community during this time of need.