November 01, 2021

As more people shelter in vehicles, Salt Lake City’s Westside feels the effects

As more people shelter in vehicles, Salt Lake City’s Westside feels the effects
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By Charlotte Fife-Jepperson

Westside residents have seen an increase in people living in RVs on the side of roads in their neighborhoods. After a summer of RVs parked along 1700 South between the old Raging Waters property and Redwood Road, it was a major topic of concern at several Glendale Community Council meetings.

“Residents have reported increased drug activity, trespassing on private property, and unsanitary public health conditions in the area,” said Glendale Community Council Chair Turner Bitton.

Unauthorized RV communities have also sprung up on 900, 1300 and 2100 South, and further west in the industrial areas.

“The issue of people living in cars or RVs is not new, but the increase is a symptom of broader economic struggles all across the nation,” said Andrew Johnston, Salt Lake City Director of Homelessness Policy and Outreach.

According to Johnston, local homelessness providers do not know how many people are living in their vehicles right now, and that the issue is complicated because it is difficult to determine whether occupants of RVs are without homes and/or technically considered unsheltered. “Some RVs are mobile homes that are just traveling through, and some have access to water, power and sewer hookups, which means they would be deemed ‘suitable for human occupancy,’” he said.

Johnston said that folks who live in their vehicles in the city do so for a variety of reasons, but after talking with many of them, he learned that “most have been priced out of the housing market.”

Longtime Westside resident, Kevin Hunt, agrees. Hunt has been homeless “off and on” for 35 years. He attributes the growing homelessness problem to a lack of affordable housing. He also said that a divorce, family fall-out, and extensive credit card debt have contributed to him being homeless. He also struggles with alcohol and drug addiction.

Over the years that Hunt has experienced homelessness, he said he has felt “pretty lonesome.” “I feel like a throw-away,” he said.

Hunt grew up on Salt Lake City’s Westside on Genessee Ave. in Poplar Grove, a block away from the spot where he was interviewed in the Native Plant Garden near 850 West 900 South. Born in 1963 in Salt Lake City, Hunt grew up with three sisters and two brothers. He attended local schools – Riverside, Parkview, Jordan Junior, and West High – and the 26th Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints near 700 South.

In his teens, he got into some trouble and found his way into a precursor to today’s Youth Works program. It was offered through Neighborhood Housing Services (now NeighborWorks Salt Lake) and made possible by the Jobs Training Program Act. He successfully completed the program and returned in the late ‘80s to help mentor troubled youth and teach construction skills.

NeighborWorks Salt Lake Director Maria Garciaz said, “Hunt did well with the youth and was a hard worker, but he left us for a full-time job.”

Hunt said he was sober for 17 years but relapsed three years ago after he and his wife divorced after 31 years of marriage. He used to be a member of a Harley motorcycle club called “Sober Riders.” For now, his Harley is being stored by his best friend, who has been checking up on Hunt every weekend for the past three and a half years. “He told me that I could have my Harley back once I get sober,” said Hunt.

Hunt said that when he got divorced, he gave his ex-wife their Poplar Grove house. “I don’t manage my house well when I’m on drugs,” he said.

Hunt was frank about his criminal history. He said he met his ex-wife in Las Vegas when he was running from the law. He had around $10,000 in credit card debt, but eventually got a reduction in charges. He pulled up his shirt to reveal a large scar from a time he was stabbed in the 80s and said that he still has bullets inside his body from being shot. He said that he quit stealing in 2001, except for the time he stole a diesel battery in a moment of desperation. “I was really hungry,” he said.

He has four daughters that he hasn’t spoken to in years, although it was apparent that he is very proud of them. “I am embarrassed about my life,” he said.

Today, Hunt feels fortunate to live in a used RV that was given to him by a woman he used to work for at an auto auction company on 5600 West. He said that a local auto shop allows him to park his RV on their property in exchange for keeping watch at night for would-be catalytic converter thieves.

In late September, when he found out that all the people who had been living in RVs along 1700 South were being forced to move, he helped tow several broken-down RVs to a new location on 900 South between 800 and 900 West. “They would have lost their RVs,” he said with concern. “Why doesn’t someone designate an area for them to live in – with port-o-potties and trash cans?”

Hunt is well-known among the people who are living on the streets on Salt Lake City’s Westside, “My friends at Fasttrac [on 802 S. 900 West] told me that I should become the “Homeless Association President,” he said with a laugh. “I really care about the youth.”

Two days before our interview, Hunt said that he happened upon an 18-year-old Chicano boy in front of Boost Mobile near 700 South and 900 West. He could tell that this young man was going through something very difficult, so he stopped and talked to him.

The boy asked for a cigarette, and at first, Hunt said no. But after the distraught young man told him that he and his girlfriend had just had a baby and broken up, Hunt handed him a cigarette and talked with him for an hour or so. He told him not to give up hope and gave him options, such as joining the military.

The young man asked if they could talk again in the future, so they agreed to meet at the same time and place the next evening. The next day, the young man thanked Hunt, and told him that he was on his way to commit suicide the day before but changed his mind after their conversation.

Hunt hopes that things will change for the better for his homeless friends on the streets, and he believes that the two most important things they are lacking, besides the basic necessities of shelter and food, are education and a good family foundation.

Published in Fall 2021