By Atticus Agustin and Charlotte Fife-Jepperson
Makeshift dwellings around the Jordan River, underneath bridges, and in parks aren’t a new thing on the west side. In fact, west side residents are probably more used to seeing such homes than people in other parts of Salt Lake City. Indigent people may not live by our community standards, but they nonetheless live in our community. Some live here for a short time, leading transient lifestyles, but others have lived here for years.
We see these people toting around all of their belongings in shopping carts or asking for handouts in grocery store parking lots, but very little is known about the individuals themselves. Just like people who have housing, the homeless have a story – sometimes an interesting one, even if their current situation is grim. The following are some of the stories we heard during conversations with several individuals experiencing homelessness.
Michael Hilton-Dalton is a combat veteran who served in several countries including Somalia and El Salvador. After he fell off a 25-foot scaffold when he was working construction, he became physically unable to work. The bank took his home when he was unable to make his mortgage payments. He has no family support (most of his relatives are dead), and the friends he has are heavy drug users. Despite his string of misfortune, he gave one piece of advice: “If you don’t be yourself, you’ll lose your identity, and then you’ll become mentally ill like me.”
Andy Hsiao was sharing an apartment with his brother. After his brother died by suicide, Andy couldn’t take care of all the expenses, so he became homeless. Everywhere he went, he got dirty looks. According to Andy, being homeless warrants some of the worst forms of discrimination rivaling racial discrimination. “They don’t like us anywhere. I get, we’re dirty kids.” Before becoming homeless, Andy earned a bachelor’s degree in art history from the University of Utah. He laments that getting his college degree didn’t make my life better. “The only way to get ahead in Utah is to be Mormon,” shouts Andy.
Kosovo veteran Daniel Alexander, who once lived in Rose Park and attended West High for a time, became homeless after the war. Alexander returned from Kosovo jobless with no family support. He filed for Section 8 housing, but the process was so long and riddled with rabbit holes, that he had to wait on the streets until it was settled. Before his deployment, he worked as a truck driver, which he called “the most easiest job in the world except when the roads are icy.” Eventually he managed to obtain housing outside of Salt Lake City proper.
For some people we talked to, homelessness is preferred. After bouncing back and forth between the hospital and jail several times, Michael Steve describes that being homeless is easy and convenient for him. “All I have to worry about is what to eat. That’s it,” he said.
John Pacheco, 44-year-old resident of Citifront Apts., told The West View his story:
Pacheco said that he has experienced homelessness four or five times during his life.
The first time was in 1987 when he was only 14 years old. Because of a drug problem, his mother lost their apartment, forcing them to move into the “underpass trailers” — basically a homeless shelter with trailers near downtown Salt Lake City.
A year later, his family was one of the first to move into the Road Home Shelter when it opened in 1988-89. Pacheco was attending Horace Mann, an alternative high school across the street from West High School. During this time, he took on two jobs at Hardees and McDonalds to get himself out of the homeless shelters. He moved into an apartment with some adult men that he met, until his mom got housing at a project near 500 South and 600 East. At this time, Pacheco attended East High School during 9th through 11th grades. He made a contract with the school, promising that if he didn’t miss a day of school, he could graduate. He kept his end of the bargain, but plans changed after his mother lost her housing; they moved again and he attended West High School his senior year.
Although he had all the credits to graduate, he was almost held back because he could only read at a third-grade level. He says he has some mental disabilities that make it difficult for him to keep a job and to read and write. He said that he taught himself to read after high school with the help of Hooked on Phonics.
At age 19, Pacheco moved out and married his girlfriend. The marriage only lasted about four months, and Pacheco found himself sleeping in his car with his belongings in storage. His mother died at the age of 42 of a heroin overdose. Pacheco worked in construction and welding, and he graduated from a welding program at Salt Lake Community College. He got a welding job at Kennecott through Western Mining Service, but he lost that job when the company went out of business.
Recently, Pacheco was evicted from his Magna apartment after a mixup related to what he says was an accidental firearm discharge. He spent last winter sleeping in his jeep with his dog, after putting all of his belongings in storage once again. “I’d rather sleep in a bush or my car than sleep at the Road Home,” he said. “There’s no reason to live at The Road Home; you’ll get robbed.”
Currently, he lives at the Citifront Apartments on North Temple and 600 West, thanks to the federal Section 42 Housing program for low-income individuals.