Salt Lake Mayor Goes Undercover As A Homeless Man For 3 Days. This Is What He Learned

August 7, 2017

The mayor of Salt Lake County, Utah, spent three days and two nights walking and sleeping among the homeless in Salt Lake City's Rio Grande neighborhood.

Mayor Ben McAdams spent one night on the street, the other in a shelter. His experience was "shocking" on multiple levels, he said.

salt lake mayor undercover homeless
Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams

The first piece of advice he got was "Don't take off your shoes." The second, "Don't go to the bathroom after dark," The Salt Lake Tribune reported.

McAdams' says this was "not a publicity stunt" but a fact-finding mission before recommending a new shelter location. Seeking a more personal perspective, he felt, could better guide future services and plans lacking in the current model.

On the first night, he slept on the street.

He wanted to know why someone might choose the sidewalk over the shelter.

"I didn't feel safe," he told Deseret News. "I absolutely did not feel safe."

McAdams described it as a "very chaotic environment" and got about four hours of sleep through it all. Still, some of the people he talked to said it's better to be outside and get some space from the drug abuse and gang violence that takes place in the shelter.

On the second night, he stayed in The Road Home.

McAdams got in line for a bed in the afternoon, but was turned away. He came back again in the evening and was able to snag a mattress. He was drenched from the rain by the time he got indoors but was too late to get a blanket. "At least it was warmer inside," McAdams said.

Once inside the shelter McAdams witnessed the blatant use of drugs, including his bunkmate injecting drugs into his arm, and the smell of what he assumed was smoke from drugs "all night long". He also witnessed a fight between two men in which a man was dragged off of his bunk and hit his head on the concrete floor.

During his three days experiencing life as a homeless man, McAdams said his time was consumed by solving two pressing needs: Where am I going to sleep? And where am I going to get food?

"You have to plan your day around that," he said, realizing that leaves little energy left to search for jobs or housing.

Moving Forward

McAdams' encounter reaffirmed his top priorities: moving families out of the shelter's harsh environment, and to immediately reduce the "intolerable" lawlessness surrounding The Road Home.

McAdams plans to fence off Rio Grande Street into a courtyard so that homeless individuals are separated from criminal predators. He also hopes to expand behavioral health treatment beds and to relocate the state liquor store away from the area.

As part of the long-term reform effort, The Road Home will close and three new shelters will open by June 30, 2019.

"I know that my three days and two nights is nothing. It was a helpful insight," McAdams said. "But I knew that if something happened, I have health insurance, I have a family, I have a home. My backstop was a phone call away."

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