Ray Cornelius stepped off a plane nearly 14 years ago to a new life. After being uprooted from New Orleans in the wake Hurricane Katrina, Cornelius didn’t think he’d end up in a place like Utah.
As a veteran who has struggled with homelessness and poverty, Cornelius now says he’s grateful to have ended up in the Beehive State.
“The degree of caring here is palatable,” he told City Weekly on Wednesday. “It’s something that’s tangible, something I didn’t experience in New Orleans.”
Cornelius and other veterans shared similar comments while visiting with Gov. Gary Herbert at Freedom Landing, a permanent supportive housing complex near 1900 West and North Temple operated by the city’s Housing Authority. The governor’s hour-long visit wasn’t just to tour the repurposed motel, though. He and other homeless advocates asked Utahns to help fight homelessness through their taxes.
As part of the contributions section, residents can select to donate to the Pamela Atkinson Homeless Trust Fund. Atkinson, who has been a long-time homeless advocate around the state, said donations as small as a couple dollars can go a long way.
“Two dollars, put alongside thousands of other $2, is a huge amount,” Atkinson said. “It can provide food, emergency shelter, case management—literally, $2 can help turn people’s lives around, that’s how important it is.”
During the guv’s visit, Herbert, along with the Housing Authority, presented Atkinson with a rendering of a new permanent supportive housing complex aptly named Pamela’s Place. The 100-unit facility is under construction at 525 S. 500 West. Freedom Landing is a 109-unit facility.
According to 2018’s Point-in-Time Count, the annual tally of homeless persons in Utah, 222 veterans were experiencing homelessness on one night while nearly 2,900 people were found to be homeless statewide. According to the count, about 15,000 people in the state experience homelessness some amount of time throughout the year.
Salt Lake City’s growing homeless population and developments like Operation Rio Grande—geared toward curing catalysts of homelessness—have made facilities like Freedom Landing an in-demand resource.
“We learned some years ago that rather than trying to treat them on the street, it’s so much better to get them into housing because it’s safe and they can get healthy,” Atkinson said. “Then, we can work with them to cure the problems that cause homelessness in the first place.”
Herbert also touted the state’s efforts to help the homeless population, citing how veteran homelessness has decreased by 30 percent since 2011.
“Particularly, we’re concerned about our veterans who have served our country admirably, sacrificed significantly and laid their lives on the line in many instances,” Herbert said. ‘Now, the country owes them a debt for their service.”
While the guv admitted “nobody’s perfect, but we’re trying to help as much as we can,” people like Cornelius have found a stable home in the state.
“They go out of their way to make you feel welcome and help you,” Cornelius said about the organizations that have helped get him back on his feet. “I couldn’t believe it. I’m humbled and very grateful places like this exist. It’s a difference of night and day to me.”