Caroline - 5,138 miles, 165 hours
And just like that, the sun sets on another city. I cannot believe that my time in Salt Lake City has already come and gone. As you know, at the food bank I focused on volunteer work that helped a very large operation that supported low income individuals indirectly by working with partner agencies. In Salt Lake the hope was to volunteer with another large organization, but this time one that directly works with low income individuals on a daily basis. Being at The Road Home was exactly that given it's the largest shelter in the state of Utah, and I was able to work hand in hand with individuals each day. While I only volunteered with The Road Home for a littler over three weeks, I learned an incredible amount from this amazing organization. Mainly that compassion and teamwork go a long way.
During my time at the shelter I mostly volunteered at the front desk. The front desk is the first stop for many either coming to or calling the shelter for the first time. Consequently, a lot of my job was to work with new individuals trying to get more information. Most of the time these individuals were incredibly distraught and saddened to the point of tears. In working with the regular staff at the front desk, I watched and learned as they sympathized with many individuals whose situations were so disheartening, it would sometimes bring the whole main lobby to a halt. At the shelter's front desk, they focused on the little things to help out in that moment. A glass of water, a new pair of socks, a tissue, a seat, or even just reassurance that everything would be okay. Each person I had the pleasure to watch the front desk with each day did an amazing job of making those who were down on their luck understand that there's a place for them here at the shelter, and people who care.
The front desk was also where the shelter supervisors were stationed most of the day, and because of that there were also many individuals coming to the front desk to voice an issue with the super. One of the supers told me that working at the shelter, one could deal with more outbursts and problems in a day than someone in another service job may see in a month, and I witnessed that firsthand. Unlike first time visitors to the shelter, individuals with issues often times did not bring tears with them, but instead frustration that could lead to outbursts of rage and sometimes violence. This type of behavior definitely made the supervisors' job one that required the utmost patience and tact, and the two supers I worked with at The Road Home had this in spades. Both of them handled issues by calmly and respectfully working with the individual in question to understand what their problem was, and how it could be addressed according to the shelter rules. There was no judgement, no bias, and definitely no disrespect. It sounds almost silly and obvious to write that, but it was refreshing to see it done so consistently and genuinely. I think I learned more about dealing with conflict by watching these two over the course of three weeks, than I may have in the last four years of being in client service.
This sense of compassion for others championed by the front desk staff and the supers can be felt all throughout the shelter. The Road Home offers many services to their clients outside of emergency shelter, so there's many different departments at the shelter such as client engagement, case work, development, and housing. They all work together in harmony, and as one big team offer so much support to those staying at the shelter. Most days, you can even find the executive director floating around in the lobby, speaking with and helping clients in between meetings. Being at the shelter even for just a few hours, you can start to get the sense that everyone there is looking to help in whatever way they can, and that sense of selflessness goes a long way to help the homeless at the shelter.
The teamwork doesn't stop there, and in fact one of the most amazing things about The Road Home is its partnerships with neighboring organizations and the city. The Rio Grande neighborhood hosts a large number of organizations providing supportive services to the homeless in Salt Lake, and they all work together to provide different services for the homeless. All within a few city blocks the homeless can find meals, clothes, healthcare, and a place to stay. When someone comes into The Road Home many times it's more about understanding their current situation and pointing them in the right direction, which wouldn't be possible if not for the partnerships established in the neighborhood.
While this colocation of services works wonders if done properly, it also appears to be one of the main reasons Operation Rio Grande is in effect. Essentially this neighborhood has gotten a little roughed up and crime has increased in the past few years given it is such a great place for the homeless to congregate. So, as is the case many times, progress can be followed by setbacks, but The Road Home seems up to the task. Currently, they're working with the city, the state, and even private organizations to come up with a solution to relocate the shelter to a better location by 2019. Having worked in state government for four years, it's pretty amazing to see this private/public partnership working on such a large scale to solve the homeless problem in SLC.
While I've already left Salt Lake and am headed on to Canada and Seattle, I'm sure I'll be following along with The Road Home throughout the rest of my sabbatical, and likely long after that as well. They've paved the way for many shelters across the US so far, and I don't doubt that they'll continue to do so even with the challenges they face today.
See you up in the great white north there soon eh?