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Mean Streets

Never mind the search for shelter. Increasingly, Salt Lake City’s homeless must struggle for their lives.



Her friends are certain Sheree Allen fought against her killer. Allen can’t speak from the grave, but when her friend James Gordon gazed down into the pink coffin at her memorial service he saw the bruises on her face.

“She was an Amazon warrior,” he concludes, describing the 22-year-old whose body was found in a West Valley Dumpster in January. “Whoever killed her got some scars.”

Gordon met Allen when he moved to Utah in 1996. He loved Allen like a daughter. He also recalls the time she pulled a buck knife on him because she thought he was trying to “get to first base.”

“She was a toughie'a sweetheart who took no guff from anybody.”

Allen’s mother Lillie believes her daughter was in the middle of trying to turn her life in a new direction. Had she not been killed, Allen might well have found a career. “She was an honor roll student in high school,” Lillie said. “At the time she died, she wanted to go back to school to become a nurse who worked with children.”

When Tanica Jarrett heard the name of the young woman found in the Dumpster, she hoped it was only a coincidence.

“Please, don’t let it be my friend,” she thought.

Yet days later, when the victim’s photo flashed on television, Jarrett instantly recognized her friend.

“We had a bond,” she says, recalling the summer they both worked at a Glendale Recreation Center youth program for low-income families. Jarrett’s one memento of the friend she never forgot is a photo from the day they bought identical outfits'black high-heeled shoes with buckles, gray pants adorned with military camouflage and black tank tops.

“I was soft spoken, and she taught me how to stand up for myself,” Jarrett recalls.

At the Catholic St. Vincent de Paul/Weigand Resource Center for the Homeless in downtown Salt Lake City, emergency services director Jim Upton said Allen was “a sweet lady, who was fighting her demons,” which he’d heard were heroin and crack cocaine. Although she was arrested for prostitution six weeks before her murder and had multiple arrests for what Salt Lake City police Detective Dwayne Baird describes as “high risk behavior,” the last time Upton spoke with her she had plans on “moving in with a relative, getting cleaned up, going back to school and getting back to her children.”

But Allen’s homelessness, coupled with the rough crowd with whom she associated, made it far more likely she would one day end up dead. Today, Allen’s friends, family and other members of the homeless community speak of her death at a young age as a waste. The reality is that Allen’s story is but one of many.

“Once you become homeless, the risk that violence will enter your life increases astronomically,” said Allen Ainsworth, executive director of Salt Lake City’s Fourth Street Clinic, which offers basic health care to the homeless.

Upton often hears people describe the life of the homeless in stereotypical terms of hobos “who ride the rails.” But if they’re fortunate to have any type of shelter at all, the homeless are more likely to surf from couch to couch. For the state’s purpose of definition, a homeless person is someone who hasn’t had a permanent address for at least six months. Allen fit that definition.

“For three years she used our services, eating here daily, staying in the shelter and speaking with the pro bono attorney,” Upton said.

And the ultimate cost of homelessness is that of mere survival which, as Upton explains, evolves into an ironclad mentality among those who walk the streets. “Survival demands that you have to defend yourself. Many homeless people have little self-respect left'so they fight for the respect they still have.”

Capt. Steve Sandquist of the West Valley City Police feels that Allen’s killer will be found. Although he declines to release the cause of death and says that thus far, everyone is a suspect, “We know somebody knows about this. We also believe that there are others who are aware of this crime. Most criminals don’t keep things to themselves. Our belief is that, this person has talked to somebody, and confessed it to a good friend. We are waiting for that person to come forward.”

Fatal consequences aside, the homeless are at daily risk for violence. Most mornings the sidewalk in front of the Weigand Center is splattered with blood from fights and stabbings. “We clean it up and treat it like hazardous waste,” says Upton. “Being homeless is a very difficult life. It is chaotic, with little routine.”

Ainsworth said he’s heard that three or four former Fourth Street Clinic clients have ended up as homicide victims. Some are luckier. One stabbing victim in his 30s left a trail of blood outside the clinic threshold. “We phoned 911, then stabilized him,” Ainsworth recalls. “We see a great deal of contusions, bruises and wounds which are the result of fights and muggings.”

The action is no less relenting at Upton’s Weigand Center. A 19-year-old woman and regular at the center was found strangled in an abandoned vehicle in Rose Park in the summer of 2003, Upton recalls. At the center’s lunch program, Upton saw one woman stab another in the chest as they stood in line for food. The altercation was over a boyfriend. “The victim didn’t want to press charges against the woman who stabbed her later. They have their own set of rules,” Upton said. As recently as June 28, Upton said, a woman stabbed a man as they stood in the lunch line. “I saw her purse fly out of her hands,” Upton remarked.

Fights often center on prescription drugs. “They fight to take those from each other with the idea of selling or using them,” Upton said. “Usually they have no street value, but they imagine they might.”

Debbie Young, 49, has been a Weigand Center shelter client for more than two years. In that time, she’s been in five fights. She said she became homeless after a local mental health agency allegedly mishandled her case. She further alleges that when she complained about illegal violations she believed the agency committed, they denied her further treatment for the anxiety, depression and anger she struggles with. “They put me on homeless row,” she says.

Red-haired and stocky, Young says she is educated, with a history of bookkeeping and secretarial temp jobs prior to her becoming homeless. Young believes she’s well liked among the homeless community, but says you’ve got to defend yourself.

“If someone hits you and you don’t hit back, you are considered a chicken and everyone picks on you,” she said.

She hit back when a man slammed her face with a water-filled plastic bottle. Another fight erupted when she accused a man of stealing her radio. He called her a liar, popped her hat off and pushed her. She shoved him back, and then hit him with her cane. In another altercation, a woman who shared a shelter cubicle with Young didn’t want her thermal underwear hanging over the end of the bed. Her punch to Young’s forehead yielded two black eyes. Hours after the fight'and after Young broke her finger while grabbing the other woman’s hair'neither woman reported the altercation. Young simply picked stray hairs off of the ground.

“If you don’t tell on each other, you don’t get kicked out of the shelter for fighting. I’ve seen my roommates punch each other, fighting like men while other roommates guard the door,” Young said. “It takes two to three weeks to come out of that fight mode. You are mad and angry. It mentally messes you up so that if anyone does anything aggressive around you, you are ready to fight again.”

Some fights among the homeless are racially motivated. But it’s homeless women, above all, who face the greatest dangers. They are more likely to become victims of sexual assault not just by homeless men, but by non-homeless men who have no qualms about forcing a sexual encounter.

There are usually shelter beds available for women to stay the night, with the facility divided into a general and a work side. Those working late shifts have some latitude as to when they come back. On the general side, women must return by 9 p.m. While they sometimes don’t get in by that time, they know two nights out without permission means they lose their beds.

Regardless, sexual assaults on homeless women occur during the day as well. Then there is stalking and, after breakups in relationships, often violence.

“I have women tell me that men are trying to follow them,” Upton said. “They are safe on our property, but afraid to step out on the street. One woman who used to date a man found that he couldn’t let go. One day he kicked her and broke two of her ribs. She certainly wasn’t looking for it and was trying to stay away. But he thought she was his property.”

Women are also in grave danger at homeless camps. “They are outnumbered by men four to one. From all over the country, people get off the train near the camps,” Upton said.

At an estimated 35 percent of the homeless population, the mentally ill find themselves especially vulnerable to violence. Not only are they easy targets to take advantage of, they’re also a danger to themselves. Suffering delusions or schizophrenia, they often cut or harm themselves, and attempted suicides are frequent'even successful. The homeless with physical ailments hardly fare better.

Upton remembers a man with Tourette’s syndrome who hollered uncontrollably while standing in the Weigand Center food line. “Every day, some of our clients would tell him that if he hollered one more time they would hurt him. Lots of them don’t care about the other person’s problem'they just want peace and quiet,” Upton said.

Some who visit the Weigand Center often feel uncomfortable or frightened of the homeless population there. “The truth is that the homeless hurt each other at a much higher rate than those from the outside,” Upton said. “Being undernourished and often intoxicated, they aren’t going to push the issue with someone who lives a normal life. They know they are on the short end of the stick.”

That’s not to say that some people fortunate enough to have an address don’t find a certain sick entertainment value in assaulting the homeless. Ainsworth calls these “random acts of hatred and violence against homeless people by non-homeless people. Someone driving along a street will go to a homeless camp and harass and beat up those people.”

Last summer, Upton recalls, a group of people in their early 20s came down to the Weigand Center to beat up homeless people at random. “They would just choose an obvious transient and start beating him.”

James Woolf, who oversees operations for the shelter at The Road Home, remembers a similar incident last summer. “We had some kids who would come to the area in front of St. Vincent’s and down by the Rio Grande Hotel. They would find someone sleeping, get out of a car and dump flour on him.”

There have been far worse cases of violence in other states, where the homeless have been set on fire or, in Tennessee, where Upton said one homeless man was chained to the back of a truck and dragged until dead.

Homelessness also interconnects with violence in that the violence comes first and actually leads to subsequent homelessness. “Some people experience violence in their immediate household. They are running to safety when they go to an emergency shelter or treatment program. They are actually safer in the shelter,” said Ainsworth. He adds that the homeless who stay in shelters are also less likely to be victims than those who live in abandoned buildings or hobo camps.

Ainsworth believes violence is almost inherent in the lifestyle, usually by the self-fulfilling decree of society. “Homelessness is increasingly being made into an act of criminalization, and an endless loop. Once you’ve been made to be a criminal, then it’s hard to break out.”

In the anonymous world of the homeless, staffers at the Catholic Community Services Weigand Center such as Upton, “really don’t know who we have as far as their background. We don’t know their real names.” One or more people have signed “Bart Simpson” on the roster, where an Osama bin Laden signature has also appeared. Upton adds that there are many reasons why street people prefer to remain anonymous. “They are trying to disappear and get away from their old lives. While some are avoiding law-enforcement agencies, others are flat out paranoid.”

Ruth Lubbers, executive director of Art Access/VSA Arts Utah, a nonprofit organization that provides an opportunity to create for children and adults with and without disabilities, recalls people theorizing that Lance Holgate, a homeless artist who simply disappeared in 1994, had actually been murdered. Holgate was recognized in Salt Lake City by his big floppy rawhide hat, flowing beard and slim stature. He was one of a group of homeless men who participated in an art exhibit called “Let Us In,” sponsored by Art Access. After the exhibit, with the help of Art Access, a core group of six or seven homeless men originated a studio called The Crippled Quill, so-named because many of them were disabled, including Holgate, who had tuberculosis. The men displayed their work in a small city-owned space that Stephen Goldsmith, then-director of Artspace (where Lubbers’ facility is located), arranged for their use as a studio.

“In regard to people who are homeless, the time that the studio existed was a brief age of Camelot, in the sense that anything was possible,” says Lubbers. “When they first started coming into the Art Access Gallery, they didn’t look people in the eye. But once they organized The Crippled Quill, they felt more assured and walked back with big smiles on their faces like they belonged there.”

Holgate, who had received previous art training, became known for his pen and ink drawings of flowers and hummingbirds. “We were giving him ideas about how to approach gift shops and art centers,” Lubbers said.

One night, carrying $200 that belonged to the group, Holgate headed to Kinko’s seven blocks away to make copies of his work. He never was seen in Salt Lake City again. His prized rawhide hat, a heavy coat, false teeth in a water glass, and tuberculosis medication were left in the 8-by-10 room he rented at the Rio Grande Hotel.

“His Crippled Quill friends were frantic,” Lubbers recalls. “They looked in Dumpsters and under bridges and couldn’t find him.” There was speculation that Holgate was robbed and attacked during his trip to Kinko’s. Lubbers explains that about this time, another Crippled Quill artist secretly reported The Crippled Quill for allowing a man to stay overnight there, which was against city code. “He then stole as much of the group’s money as he could and took off in his van. He came under suspicion of doing Lance in,” Lubbers says, adding that no one knows to this day what happened to Holgate.

Had an unidentified body been found that might have been his, and it was sufficiently well-preserved for fingerprinting to take place, the prints would have been run through AFIS, or Automated Fingerprint Identification System, explains Dr. Maureen Frikke, assistant medical examiner in the state medical examiner’s office. “Many people have been fingerprinted for one reason or another. Pretty often, we will find the fingerprint identification.” If the body is still unidentified, “we will hold the bodies for a certain period of time, depending on how full we are and how likely it is that someone will come forward. There is no law mandating the amount of time a body may be held.”

A forensic odontologist sometimes conducts a dental examination of an unidentified corpse that includes X-rays. “If we still aren’t finding anything, the bodies are buried or cremated at county expense,” Frikke explains. She adds that if a body’s identity is determined, and the decedent’s family doesn’t want to pay for burial expenses, the county in which the body is found has a statutory obligation to provide disposition. They will perform cremation, or provide burial depending on their individual county policy.

In Salt Lake County, such bodies are cremated. “It’s really not that rare for a family to say, ‘we don’t have the money and we don’t want to pay for this,’” Frikke said.

In some cases, with both indigent and non-indigent people, “we know who the deceased is, but there is no record of their next of kin. If you’ve never been booked into jail, or never had anyone such as medical personnel ask who your next of kin is, there is no paper trail.”

For 10 percent of homeless people, homelessness is a chronic, lifelong state. Many of the Weigand Center’s regular clients fit within this category. Ninety percent of homeless people are “episodically” homeless, for a period of 30 to 90 days, explains Ainsworth. They may be episodically homeless more than once a year, and may get caught in the crossfire of violence during that time. On the other hand, Ainsworth says, “If you are in a dysfunctional household and experiencing violence, seek help and don’t put up with those conditions.”

Yet fleeing domestic violence is identified as a primary cause of homelessness by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which finds that 92 percent of homeless women experienced severe physical and/or sexual assault at some point in their lives. Sixty percent of homeless women had been abused by the age of 12; 63 percent have been victims of intimate partner violence as adults.

Michael Stoops, acting executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, believes preventing violence against the homeless is a matter of pushing the issue into public policy through hate-crimes legislation and other policies that establish “people experiencing homelessness” as a protected class. “Including homeless people in such a status would result in hate crimes against the homeless being more appropriately handled and prosecuted,” he said. “Additionally, if victims know that a system is in place to prosecute such crimes, they are more likely to come forward and report them.”

Stoops also suggests calling for action from the U.S. Department of Justice to publicly acknowledge that hate crimes and violence against people experiencing homelessness is a serious national trend, and to maintain a database that tracks these civil-rights abuses so that the issue might be addressed on a systematic federal level.

Advocates and homeless shelter workers have received news reports of men, women and children being kicked, set on fire, beaten to death and even decapitated, according to an NCH fact sheet. In a three-year period, they found “212 hate crimes and violent acts committed against people experiencing homelessness'all perpetrated by non-homeless individuals.” Of these 212 attacks, 123 resulted in death.

Stoops and other NHC members also advocate encouraging local homeless advocacy organizations to track hate violence in a systematic way. The Coalition has distributed an “Incident Report Form,” a tool for agencies to document hate crimes and violent acts against a person who doesn’t have a permanent residence. Stoops further suggests promoting police awareness training at police academies and departments for trainees and police officers on how to deal effectively and humanely with the homeless. “Victims are more likely to come forward to report crimes if they feel trusted and understood by law-enforcement officers,” Stoops said.

Even among those who are chronically homeless, life isn’t completely bitter. “Though it’s hard to imagine caring in a world where a pair of dry socks is worth beating someone up over, it’s there,” says Upton.

He recalls the case of Tom and Frank, both Vietnam veterans and alcoholics. Frank had lost both legs and Tom pushed him around in his wheelchair unfailingly, whether it was sunny or if there was 5 inches of snow on the ground.

“You can see kindness and caring here, too,” Upton said.