SALT LAKE CITY — Jared Arvanitas, manager for the Downtown Alliance’s ambassador program, says he and his team walk an average of 13 miles a day in their work to help those living on the streets.
Arvanitas’ breath wisped in the air as he moved briskly up South Temple toward City Creek Center — what he called a “hot spot” for panhandling and a common gathering place for people experiencing homelessness.
“It’s taken me nine months to develop a rapport on these streets,” Arvanitas explained, grinning as he told of how he’s been attacked, shouted at and dismissed before finally gaining trust. “I’ve chipped away at that plate mail, one link at a time.”
The challenges are year-round, though they change with the seasons. In summer, the drug dealing and overdoses run more rampant, he said. In winter, it’s the fear of finding someone frozen to death on the street.
Within an hour of his stroll through City Creek, Arvanitas checked in with several familiar faces, including Emil Miller, who sat bundled with his husky, Tehya, on Main Street. Miller politely declined any help.
Then Arvanitas tried to assist a man in a wheelchair who lost his ID when his wallet was stolen. He also came across a man high on what he guessed was Spice staggering down South Temple.
The man, bleary-eyed and swaying, shook his head and laughed when Arvanitas asked him if he wanted medical attention. Walking away, Arvanitas radioed one of his teammates and told him to check on the man later.
“It’s just a vicious cycle for these guys,” Arvanitas said, explaining his team can only help when people want it. “It’s what we do.”
Earlier Tuesday morning, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and homelessness advocate Pamela Atkinson, as well as other officials, held a news conference at St. Vincent De Paul Dining Hall to spread a message to Utahns wanting to help the homeless during the holiday season: Donations and help are welcome, but do it the right way. And it’s needed year-round, not just during the holidays.
“One of the things that happens this time of the year, is everybody wants to give,” Atkinson said. “I have to be honest and tell you I really searched the scriptures, all kinds of scriptures, and nowhere have I found, ‘Thou shalt only give at Thanksgiving and Christmas.'”
“I don’t want to stop people giving, please don’t get me wrong. I mean, that would be terrible,” Atkinson said. “I’m grateful that so many people care so deeply and so much. I’m just suggesting that we look at the months of January, February and March when the weather can be grotty.”
Told of Atkinson’s message, Nathon Christian — a homeless man who grabbed Arvanitas’ hand and pulled him in for a hug when he saw him — clapped and shouted: “Praise Jesus!”
“We do live all year long, you know,” Christian said, smiling.
Christian said he’s been living on the streets for nine years.
“We’re people, too, and we need help,” he said. “Not everybody is out to just go buy drugs and alcohol.”
Atkinson and Cox explained that homeless service providers not only receive an at-times overwhelming gush of donations during the holidays, but Utahns sometimes hand out food or donations directly on the streets, leading to more problems than solutions.
“We are a very generous state,” Cox said. “This time of year, people are really thinking about how they can give and how they can help. Unfortunately, sometimes those good intentions lead to not-so-good outcomes.”
Cory Young, Salt Lake City waste and recycling manager, said oftentimes items handed out on the streets end up discarded as litter, or can even lead to fights. He also said handing out food can create health and safety risks for not only people donating, but also people experiencing homelessness.
“The motives are great, but it does create some serious concerns,” Young said.
Instead, Matthew Melville, homeless service director for Catholic Community Services, urged Utahns to donate to homeless service providers. He encouraged donors to check websites for Catholic Community Services, the Road Home, Volunteers of America, and others for a list of items in need.
Now, Melville said, homeless providers welcome donations of jackets, beanies, gloves, pants and hygiene supplies, and also cash.
Donations to Shelter the Homeless, the owner of the three future homeless resources, are being matched dollar-for-dollar by Gail Miller, owner of the Larry H. Miller Group of Companies.
“We just want to encourage Utahns to continue giving,” Cox said. “Please give smartly.”