Part Two: Lending a helping hand

The issue of homelessness affects most communities across the globe. Every day, millions of Americans, including some in Grand County, wander the streets, sleep on benches or in makeshift camps, and struggle to survive without many of life’s basic necessities. Some will even lose their lives. In this series, The Times-Independent examines the issue of homelessness in Moab and Grand County, efforts that are being made to help the local homeless, and how the community can move forward to provide the necessary support for a population that now lives on the periphery of society.

In Part 1 of this series,The Times-Independentexamined the issue of homelessness in Moab and throughout Utah and large-scale efforts to cope with the problem. This week, the focus is closer to home – people who are working, either through an agency or as volunteers, to take on the challenge locally in an effort to help Moab’s homeless reclaim their lives.

Since 1988, Interact Clubhouse, operated by Four Corners Community Behavioral Health, has provided help and services to the homeless and other individuals in Grand County who are mentally ill. More recently, a group of citizen volunteers – Solutions of Moab – has also begun to work directly with the homeless in the community and to try to develop long-term solutions for helping those people deal with their problems and find work and homes.

Solutions of Moab

In 2004, Moab residents Sara Melnicoff and David Morgan launched Solutions of Moab, a volunteer group that advocates for recycling and cleaning up trails, streams, and roads. The group approached the city about starting a “Friends of the Parkway” organization to bring the community together to “interact with the environment and one other,” Melnicoff said.

“Every week, Carol Hoggard and I would walk the parkway and clean up recycling. We started noticing the homeless camps by the creek behind the Gonzo Inn, but I was reticent to go near them,” Melnicoff said. “Around 2008, we were picking up big bags of beer and alcohol bottles, and it gave me the idea to ask the people living on the parkway if they would help for a little bit of money.”

The idea was to engage the “creek community” – a term those local homeless coined to refer to themselves – and, over time, develop trust and try to provide help and understanding, Melnicoff said.

“It was a good way to get them active and involved, and we started to get to know everybody and how they ended up there,” Melnicoff said.

She learned that although many of the homeless were alcoholics, they were also caring and sensitive and considered themselves a community. Kristina Cassidy, founder of the HOPE Garden in Castle Valley, learned about Melnicoff’s efforts and offered to help.

“I started to prepare and bring food to the parkway and work with Sara and the homeless during their cleanup,” said Cassidy. “I got to know everybody down there, and we were having fun and becoming friends.”

When Cassidy left town for a few months, the Moab Church of Christ helped out for a while, offering a soup kitchen on Thursdays. In the fall of 2010, the First Baptist Church of Moab began offering a meal each Sunday for anyone in need.

“We were excited that people wanted to do something like this,” said Debbie Rappe, who helps organize those Sunday dinners. “It’s been as beneficial for all of us as it’s been to the people that come here.”

Also that fall, Melnicoff and Cassidy joined the Grand County Homeless Coordinating Committee as part of a subcommittee called Emergency Shelter Solutions.

Melnicoff said she was “propelled” to help after a homeless woman she had met died from exposure to the cold in 2009. “We didn’t have resources at that point, but we made sure they all had tarps and sleeping bags to survive,” she said.

Emergency Shelter Solutions is geared toward raising money for temporary housing during inclement weather until a permanent solution can be found, said Melnicoff. The two women, with the help of other community members, started placing people in hotels and hostels and found a trailer for two men. With the help of the Baptist Church, the “Mom Squad” was started to help teach the homeless how to do laundry, clean, and give overall structure to their living situations.

“We gradually started doing more green job training, and I realized the more I could keep them busy, the less time they had to drink,” said Melnicoff, who also started the Quiet Lawn Care company with Morgan, where homeless individuals weed or clean up yards without machinery that disturbs the environment. They must be sober to work and earn a wage, she said.

“We’ve had about 20 or 30 jobs, and many people have had them back several times,” Melnicoff said.

Through private funding and the efforts of Solutions of Moab and Emergency Shelter Solutions, all the homeless living on the parkway this fall have been placed in some sort of living situation for winter. According to Cassidy, many of them are thriving, paying rent, and a few are regularly attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

“I’ve seen each of these guys improve in spirit, soul, and character because of love…you can actually see their soul shining,” said Cassidy. “The more we can nurture them without judging, the more they continue to better themselves.”

Melnicoff said helping without judgment is the key. “It’s very heartbreaking if you have expectations,” she said. “You realize you can only do what you can… keep trying and putting out good energy for them and see what works.”

Rappe said the church will continue to put out that good energy with Sunday dinners, adding that she believes the dinners are helping the homeless to see that people love them and they are accepted.

“It’s good to love people with problems because we all have problems. It’s changed a lot of people in the church who were apprehensive, and just to get to know them,” Rappe said. “They are wonderful people… they are my friends.”

Interact Clubhouse

“I think we’ve become their family. Many of them have the same hopes and dreams as the rest of us, but something got in the way,” said Sharon Relph, director of the Interact Clubhouse.

Interact provides those with mental illness a case manager who works with them to find their strengths and increase job skills, get assistance in attaining housing, assistance in receiving health benefits, and inclusion in a community to help them feel more empowered, according to information on the Four Corners website.

“Housing is a big thing we do because there are so many barriers for them to attaining a voucher,” said Relph. “Whether it’s a criminal history, poor credit, or lack of job skills, it is very difficult to get people through the housing authority process.”

In response to the housing situation, Four Corners opened the Willows in 2003, an eight-bed house targeted specifically at getting homeless individuals off the streets, according to Relph. Residents at the Willows must be active in the Interact Clubhouse and receiving services through Four Corners. There is a strict no substance abuse policy, which can make it difficult for people to be admitted to the Willows or stay for lengths at a time. At the end of fiscal year 2011, the Willows had housed 17 people, according to Relph.

“It’s been very successful,” said Melonie Dolphin of Interact. “Without the Willows, the homeless would have no place to go.”

Dolphin said Interact is fortunate to get funding from private avenues, such as the Olene Walker Housing Trust Fund that earmarks $75 million a year for housing projects. Those projects must run for 20 years. Dolphin said Interact does receive some state funding for transportation, case management, and other services, but for the most part, Grand County has not received government funding for two to three years.

The Interact Clubhouse is also responsible for the “Point-in-Time” homeless count in Grand County. Every January, Dolphin and her crew go out into the desert, up the creek, to the jails, the food bank, and the hospital to calculate an accurate count of the number of homeless individuals in the county.

“Every place we can think of to look, we do. We want to count everyone, episodic or chronic,” said Dolphin, stating the count helps with possible funding and shows just how big the problem is. The count for 2011 was 16, four less than in 2010. Individuals found by Dolphin are given a voluntary questionnaire to ascertain their demographic specifics, background, and length of homelessness.

“Sometimes people will refuse to answer and I have to gain their trust. They are afraid of arrest and harassment, and it makes it hard,” Dolphin said. “We take them water, food, coats, shoes, sleeping bags, hotel samples of shampoo and soap, and after time, they learn to trust us.”

Relph said the facility also helps homeless individuals without mental illnesses get some services but does not house them. Interact accepts donations of household items, toiletries, and other items such as clothing that Interact members may be able to use on a daily basis. She said most of the people Interact houses do not have furniture or anything to put in their rooms, and donations go a long way.

“My favorite part of the job is when someone new comes in because we have reached out to them,” said Dolphin. “I wish everybody who thinks we don’t have a homeless problem or issue would take the time to go out and do a count with us.”

Next week, the third and final installment in this series will further examine individual efforts to help the homeless in Moab, areas where services could be improved, and future goals and endeavors to continue community support.

ByBy Charli Engelhorn

staff writer