Build the New Shelters, but Keep the Old—We May Need It! -- Bryant Watson, RBS 2006

    By: Bryant Watson, RBS 2006


    By closing the downtown shelter and opening four smaller shelters, our City’s plan will eliminate 500 beds. I want to share what the loss of those beds could mean to people battling homelessness. Before my family called the downtown shelter home, my sister and I slept in the backseat of a rusting, white hatchback. Up front, my parents would crank the car on to use its heater and crank it off to save gas. We would park at neighborhood parks. Some nights a beam of light would pierce through the car’s fogging windows. As my father rolled down his window, a police officer would see us, lower his flashlight, and apologetically tell us that the park closed at sundown. On those unwelcomed nights, my father would turn over the engine, and we would journey to a spot along the Jordan River where police patrolled less frequently. Although my mother had told my sister and me that we were on a camping trip, the unlit stretch of dirt and asphalt along the riverbank still conjured dark thoughts.

    When my family moved into the downtown shelter, we were just happy to sleep in a warm bed. The shelter’s out-of-the-way location, across the street from a muddy Ute cab dispatch lot and its nearness to an active train yard did not bother me: if anything, the metallic chatter of train wheels rolling over cold tracks lulled me to sleep. The dull and dampened sounds from down the street told me that we were indoors, safe.

    We eventually moved out of the downtown shelter. But, unable to pay rent, we found ourselves back at its front desk. This time, however, there were no beds; the downtown shelter was full. We tried an overflow shelter and found four cots in a room shared with several other families. In the tight space, there was no hiding from an older boy, Robert, who viciously bullied me; it was there that I learned to throw a punch. I still remember my sister crying as my mother chopped off her long hair after finding that it had become infested with lice, a consequence of living in cramped conditions.

    I know from firsthand experience that the downtown shelter, even with all of its blemishes, is far better than improvised overflow shelters. It is certainly better than sleeping in a car. Our City needs an insurance policy to guard against inadequate shelter space, and if we keep it available, the downtown shelter could be that insurance policy.

    No matter what happens to the downtown shelter, I know that showing compassion for people battling homelessness will be important. My sister and I were adopted after my mother unexpectedly passed away during my sophomore year at West High. Uplifted by my adopted parents’ compassion, I not only graduated from West High but also attended and graduated from West Point. We must all show compassion by welcoming shelter residents into our schools, workplaces, and communities. We can only dream of what they may someday accomplish.

    But compassion cannot be an excuse for the City to turn a blind eye to the very real problems of illegal drug use and distribution around homeless shelters. I know firsthand how important it is to address these issues. It was at the downtown shelter that my father first burnt the bottom of a spoon, converting powder cocaine into crack.

    His addiction endures. Returning from a combat deployment to Afghanistan, I drove 652 miles to formally introduce my wife to my father. But when my father opened the door, he did not recognize me. Though we had spent the first sixteen years of my life together, his continued drug use had twisted his mind so severely that he mistook me for a door-to-door salesman. With great difficulty, I explained that I was his son. I pleaded with him to sober up, so we could spend the next day together—I had so much to share. The next morning, he was in worse condition: his Louisianan accent, 1960s slang, and warm words reduced to unintelligible mumbles. I want to believe that one of them was “sorry.”

    My father’s struggle is the human cost of our City’s continuing failure to eradicate illegal drugs near the downtown shelter. Who knows where he would be if Evaun, a fellow shelter resident, had not offered him a “cure” for his injured back. As our City pursues its plan, it must commit to eradicating illegal drugs near both the new and old shelters, and it must reassess its decision to close the downtown shelter. This is the only way to truly show compassion for our neighbors.

    Bryant Watson graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 2010. A former captain and infantry officer, Bryant served five years in the U.S. Army, including a combat tour along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. He currently attends Yale Law School.

    1st Published, January 14, 2017, The Salt Lake Tribune