SALT LAKE CITY -- Once a week, Sgt. Michelle Ross’ job takes her to Pioneer Park for an extra shift on patrol she considers to be one of her most important.
“Sometimes you have to talk to folks for a little bit because they’re a little wary of you,” Ross said.
For the longtime member of the Salt Lake City Police Department, the visit could be one of her more challenging assignments: starting the conversation about how to help Utah’s homeless population.
“Sometimes I even take some of these guys with me and we just go walk around,” Ross said. “And we just start talking to them, you know, just ask them how their day’s going.”
Recent data collected for the homeless Point in Time Count, which records the state’s homeless population on a given night in January, shows Utah’s numbers have decreased from 16, 522 in 2012 to 15,093 in 2013. However, Ross argues that the numbers are deceiving.
“It’s a good way of measuring, but by no means is this the exact number,” she said. “There are camps that are up high in City Creek, and when you do the count in January, which is when you’re supposed to do it, you can’t get to all those camps. There’s certain individuals you can’t count because they couch surf, or they have enough money for a hotel room for the night.”
Ross’ department has decided to team up with several other organizations in the state to help Salt Lake’s homeless residents find a permanent place to stay, or at the very least, the resources to get them there.
Ross said: “With some of it, it is as simple as trying to get all the documentation you need to get an ID. When you’re homeless and you lose your ID, you can’t get into programs. It’s very difficult.”
The effort has introduced Ross to people like Jonah Mccann, 19, who moved into Pioneer Park about six months ago.
“Most of us, our actual families, blood, adopted, step, whatever it is, they in one way or another have turned their backs on us,” Mccann said.
Originally from Provo, the teen said he’s been getting by with the help of other homeless people he’s met along the way.
“We’ll do everything for each other,” he said. “We look out for each other, and that’s what a family should be. It’s the closest thing I’ve had to a family in my entire life.”
Ross’ group, though, has now become a second line of support.
“Wednesday, I’m actually getting my birth certificate, social and ID started, which then it should only take a little while,” Mccann said. “They’re helping pay for it and everything.”
Mccan plans to start looking for work soon and is hopeful that his is just a temporary stay at the park.
“These guys believe that they can help us, and they’re doing their best to do what they can,” he said. “From what I can tell, I know at least four people that they’ve helped in one way or another with IDs, housing, food.”