Salt Lake Mayor Goes Undercover To See What Homeless Shelters In His City Are Really Like

Much like the television series, Undercover Boss, the Salt Lake County Mayor, Ben McAdams, decided to take it upon himself to see what homelessness really felt like for the people who were living inside the borders of his jurisdiction.

For four entire months, he kept his investigative work under wraps so that he could move freely without being in the face of the news cycle. He also said that he didn’t want people to feel like it was just a “publicity stunt in the face of human suffering.”

Back in March of 2017, McAdams was due by state law to find a third site to implement a new homeless resource center. But before he made his decision, he wanted to see what the existing shelters were like in the worst parts of town.

Deseret News/Kristen Murphy
Deseret News/Kristen Murphy

Despite hours and hours of public debate, and more than two entire years trying to figure out the best way to go about planning a reform for the county’s homeless services, McAdams felt there was still something “missing” from the equation.

“I needed to see firsthand, to understand the complexity of the recommendation I was being asked to make,” he said.

So for three days and two nights, the mayor spent his time walking the streets and sleeping without a home. What he witnessed was far beyond what he imagined.

The Dangers Of Shelter Life

Within the 1,062-bed shelter deep within Salt Lake City’s Rio Grande neighborhood, just a one-night stay provided a lot of information about the chaotic environment.

Rampant and blatantly obvious drug use, fights and violence breaking out in the dorms, and a severe lack of feeling safe were all just some of the experiences McAdams went through during a very short time.

People warned him not to take off his shoes or leave his bag unattended even for the shortest period of time because they would, in all likelihood, be stolen if he didn’t keep a constant eye on his possessions.

Deseret News/Kristen Murphy
Deseret News/Kristen Murphy

Article continues below

Our Featured Programs

See how we’re making a difference for People, Pets, and the Planet and how you can get involved!

He also saw children that were being exposed to the dangerous environment because the family simply had nowhere else to go.

“What psychological trauma is probably inflicted on a child who doesn’t know where he’s going to sleep or where his next meal is going to come from?” he asked. “It deepened in me a commitment that we’ve got to do better for these kids.”

“The things I saw in my very brief time were shocking and reaffirmed my commitment to take action now.”

After even his short time within the depths of a homeless environment, McAdams understood immediately that change desperately needed to be made to the improve the public safety in and around the shelters.

“Doing nothing is not an option, even if it’s the end of me politically,” he said.

Moving Forward

Deseret News/Kristen Murphy
Deseret News/Kristen Murphy

The homelessness issue is not specific to Salt Lake City, Utah, but McAdams is doing his best to provide a concise plan that encapsulates one of the most important priorities of moving families and children out of the shelters.

As of July 2017, the Rio Grande shelter where McAdams spent his time is no longer admitting families, and if a family does show up to the facility, they are helped to the family shelter in nearby Midvale, or are helped with other arrangements to provide a safe place to stay.

According to the Executive Director of the Rio Grande location, Matt Minkevitch, they are considering giving out motel vouchers to help families in need even further.

So as the county of Salt Lake continues to press forward under McAdams, it is clear that they are all willing to make the difficult steps in order to provide safety and security as best as they possibly can for the people who find themselves without a home.

Now it is up the rest of the country to follow suit.

Help Feed the Hungry

Provide food and supplies to those in need at The Hunger Site for free!