Community group works to create solutions for homelessness in Moab

It is often said in communities like Moab that the homeless are “invisible,” but to members of one local group committed to finding shelter for the area’s homeless, the community need only open its eyes to clearly see the problem.

“I was really surprised to see the ignorance surrounding homelessness,” said Moab resident Kristina Cassidy. “Many people are prejudiced and many people didn’t think we had a homeless problem at all.”

Cassidy, founder of the HOPE Garden, and Sara Melnicoff, founder of Solutions of Moab, co-chair Emergency Shelter Solutions, a subcommittee of Moab’s Homeless Coordinating Committee. The subcommittee works towards finding emergency shelter for homeless people in the area.

On a rainy Dec. 21 evening, Melnicoff and Cassidy joined a few of the local homeless and concerned citizens for a candlelight vigil, remembering Moab’s homeless citizens who have died over the years. The group also attended the Grand County Council meeting, where the project was explained and the homeless introduced themselves to council members.

The subcommittee currently consists of concerned citizens, city and county officials, area nonprofits including Seekhaven and WabiSabi, and church and civic groups. At the group’s second meeting on Dec. 17 four homeless people were also in attendance.

“We’re trying to partner with as many other groups as we can,” Melnicoff said.

She explained that the group’s most critical goal is to locate temporary emergency shelter for those in need, adding that there is a possibility of motel room accommodation for a day or two if funding can be arranged. The group is in the process of deciding how that funding should be administered. According to Melnicoff, Zions Bank has also offered to help.

“We don’t want people to be concerned about where the money is going,” Melnicoff said. “If they give money it would be used directly to pay for motel rooms for people in the very worst weather, or if they’re sick.”

She added that, with temperatures getting colder and rain and snow forecast, the homeless often become ill with pneumonia, bronchitis and a variety of other ailments. That high potential for illness is only one of the risks associated with homelessness, Melnicoff said, adding that some go to sleep at night, never to awaken.

“The year before [last] I met this woman named Laurie and she died that week on the parkway,” Melnicoff said. “It was tragic. She had died of exposure. We don’t want to see that right in the shadow of million-dollar houses built on the parkway. We don’t want to see people starving, suffering and freezing to death.”

Melnicoff said she is grateful that last year, despite weeks of severe cold, no one in the homeless community died. Several area residents took it upon themselves to help by providing tarps, blankets, hats, clothes and food, so that Moab’s homeless could survive another year, she said.

“It’s been really moving to see the community making that effort,” Melnicoff said.

The subcommittee aspires to secure long-term shelter that could provide more than just a warm bed. Melnicoff said that as a community-created effort a shelter would have a good chance of succeeding. She suggested that, left to the city or county, the prospect of creating a shelter may never be realized.

“If they wanted [a shelter] there would be one by now, and there isn’t,” Melnicoff said.

Melnicoff and Cassidy both envision a shelter where people have the opportunity to overcome the obstacles in their lives and become functioning members of society.

“If we’re going to put a long-term shelter in this community it’s got to be done right,” Cassidy said. “[These people need], even if it’s just for the winter, reliable long-term shelter. It also means support services for them; and that means counseling, food, showers and jobs. You know, the whole nine yards.”

Cassidy added that she was also homeless for a time. Grateful to the local community, which she said helped her when she needed it most, Cassidy said she has faith that area residents can work together to help those who are still without homes.

“It will take a bit of work to get permanent shelter but it is doable,” she said. “This community is awesome. If any community can do something like this, it’s this one.”

Since 2008, Melnicoff has been working with the homeless, and for the past year Cassidy has joined her. Melnicoff’s organization has been putting homeless people to work on several projects including Friends of the Parkway and The Quiet Lawn Care Company. She said that alcohol addiction is a common challenge faced by those who are homeless.

“People are addicted to alcohol or drugs and they just keep spiraling downward,” she said.

Melnicoff is careful to add that addiction is not always part of the story. She said that, amongst the homeless, no two stories are alike. There are no simple explanations for why some people end up in such a dire situation.

“There are so many reasons why people are homeless but it’s how we respond as a society that reveals what we’re like,” she said.

Melnicoff said that, if the community pulls together to make a difference, a homeless shelter shouldn’t be difficult to realize.

“Picture 10 people standing around a sheet and the sheet has a thousand pounds on it,” Melnicoff said. “If we all lift a little bit, it’s a very small burden for each of us.”

For more information about Emergency Shelter Solutions, call Sara Melnicoff at 259-0910.

ByBy April Labine

contributing writer