news | Politics

Mayor Went Undercover to Experience Homelessness For Himself

Leaving his office on Friday with no money, or ID, Mayor Ben McAdams walked into Salt Lake City's most troubled neighborhoods.

He wasn't there to campaign or shake hands with those in need, instead he was dressed in jeans, sneakers and a hoodie. His goal was to spend 3 days and 2 nights walking and sleeping among the city's homeless and drug-addicted citizens of Salt Lake City's Rio Grande neighborhood.

He kept his experience private for months until finally agreeing to talk to Deseret News.

He chose to keep his weekend on the streets and in homeless shelters private because until now because he didn't want it to seem like a cheap stunt to impress news sources and the public.

"I was concerned that it not look like a publicity stunt in the face of human suffering," the mayor said.

Instead he wanted to use his experience to help him deepen his understanding of the current homeless system before he decided which neighborhood would house a third homeless resource center.

After nearly a month of heated public meetings and fury from residents, he felt like something was still missing from enabling him to make an informed decision.

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

So what did he learn? Continue to the next page to see his first hand experience in the downtown shelter.

After reluctant approval from his wife, McAdams and a county employee departed on foot for the Rio Grande neighborhood after work on Friday.

Making sure not to use community resources, he made an anonymous donation to cover the services he would use for those two nights.

Concealing his identity, he and the employee spent the first night on the street outside to try to understand why some people choose not to go into a shelter.

"It was cold — below 40s," the mayor said. When he woke up, it was raining. "You wonder why people would choose to do that, knowing that there were beds available in the shelter."

After the next night being homeless, he understood why.

Once McAdams checked into the men's dorms at Road Home, he saw his bunk-mate injecting drugs. The mayor declined to comment on his first-hand account.

"I don't want to focus on my brief firsthand experience because I know there are people who see the same and worse every single day," he explained. "The things I saw in my very brief time were shocking and reaffirmed my commitment to take action now."

He did indicate that there was evidence of drug use in the shelter and a fight even broke out between 2 men where one was dragged off his bunk and his head hit against the concrete floor.

When staying at the shelter he was advised not to remove his shoes because they would be stolen and it was recommended that he use his bag as a pillow so his belongings weren't left unattended.

"One person told me to be sure not to use the restroom at night because it wasn't safe," McAdams added. The man didn't elaborate why it wasn't safe, but McAdams took it as the potential for sexual violence.

"I didn't feel safe," he said. "It was a fairly chaotic environment."

Thinking about his previous night outside, he concluded, "I certainly could understand why people would choose not to sleep there."

The night that McAdams stayed at the shelter, there were about 600 men, a large number for the shelter to manage.

The shelter has grown over the years to accommodate demand.

After walking away from the situation McAdams knew that "doing nothing is not an option, even if it's the end of me politically."

In the months since his experience, McAdams has been able to get state leaders including Gov. Gary Herbert and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox as well as House Speaker Greg Hughes on board.

Revamping the system, he said, "can't happen fast enough."

The Road Home's downtown shelter will close in June 2019, when the 3 new homeless resource centers come online.

"There were many people saying, 'Back away and do nothing,'" McAdams said. "Seeing what I saw … was shocking, and I came away from this experience knowing we had to go forward, we had to change the system, that we as a community had kicked the can down the road for decades and just looked the other way."