Waking up with a headache on Thanksgiving is not the best way to start the day. It didn’t get any better when I looked out the window and saw the 13 inches of snow God in His infinite wisdom had seen fit to dump on my driveway.
Seeing all that accumulated snow triggered a bad memory from the prior evening. Going all of five miles an hour, I couldn’t and slid into a car stopped in front of me on snowy Main Street. At least no one was hurt, nor was either car damaged.
It didn’t appear Thanksgiving weekend was off to a good start. But then things began to improve. There was some gas left in the gas can, and after a couple of pulls, the snowblower started. It’s a lot easier to move 13 inches of snow by machine than it is by hand. My frame of mind continued to improve as the Chicago Bears roared back in the second half to keep from losing to the hapless Detroit Lions.
My contribution to Thanksgiving dinner this year was homemade cranberry sauce, and it was coming together nicely. We packed it up along with the family dog and piled into the car to spend Thanksgiving with some dear friends in Salt Lake. Things were looking up!
Our friend, Carol, is an excellent cook. Classically trained. There’s nothing quite like walking into a warm house filled with the wonderful smells of Thanksgiving dinner all around you. Warm, aroma-filled air enveloped us as we stepped out of the cold afternoon and through the front door of our friend’s house. A little bit of heaven on earth. We sat down to a delicious meal with wonderful friends and family. Even the Dallas Cowboys were losing. All seemed right with the world. But was it?
Please pardon my sudden shift of mood here. And I’m not trying to make anyone feel guilty who enjoyed a similar experience on Thanksgiving Day. It is a real blessing to be able to share good food in a safe, warm home with family and friends. But that experience is just not possible when you’re living in your car or a storage unit or in some abandoned building you’ve had to break into.
At the last Local Homeless Coordinating Council meeting, there was general agreement that there are at least 40-50 chronically homeless people in our valley. They show up every day at the food bank. They go to the emergency room at Mountain West Medical Center for treatment. We served at least 20 last week at the Wednesday Warm-up meal hosted by the Methodist Church in town.
Thirteen inches of snow is not a minor inconvenience to these people — it’s life threatening. For the next 10 days, the predicted low temperature in Tooele Valley will not get above freezing. We met a woman at the last Coordinating Council meeting who told us how she lives in her truck. Two of the windows are broken and are taped up with cardboard. I guarantee Thanksgiving Day was different for her than it was for you and me.
The state of Utah has mandated that each local community come up with a plan to help the homeless. It is a state-wide problem, and each city has been charged with putting together a strategy to deal with it. Offering someone a bus ticket to Salt Lake or putting them up for a night or two in a motel isn’t much of a strategy. Tooele has a long ways to go. But some communities are ahead of the curve. Five years ago, Carol Hollowell started the Switchpoint Community Resource Center in St. George.
Switchpoint has over 80 beds to offer to unsheltered homeless people. But more importantly, Switchpoint offers comprehensive “wrap-around” services to help lift the homeless out of their desperate situations. Last year, the St. George Chamber of Commerce named Switchpoint as the “Non-Profit” of the year in Washington County. Thankfully, Swithchpoint has generously offered to help us in Tooele Valley. We do not have to re-invent the wheel.
But we must walk before we can run. While we can work on a full-blown Community Resource Center as a worthwhile goal, we should begin by opening up an existing building as a Warming Center. A Warming Center offers minimal services — a safe, warm, dry place to sleep at night. That’s about it. No food. No medical services. No free clothes. But at least a Warming Center might keep someone who is unsheltered from freezing to death in the weeks and months ahead.
We need a building. And the political and community will to do the right thing. With the help of Carol Hollowell and Switchpoint, we can get this done. I urge all concerned citizens to make their presence and desire to help known by attending County Commission and City Council meetings. They take place on the first and third Tuesday and Wednesdays of each month. Let’s give the ones Jesus referred to as “the least of these” a warm place to sleep so that they too might truly give thanks.
Rick Ehrheart is pastor of Mountain of Faith Lutheran Church in Tooele.