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SALT LAKE CITY — The tough economy nearly put an end to evening meals for the needy at St. Vincent de Paul's Dining Hall. But when the community heard about the problem, several groups stepped up and said they would take on the task themselves.
At any given time, homeless advocates say there could be roughly 15,000 homeless people in Utah. As the recession lingers, they say more homeless, as well as low-income families, will enter the gates at St. Vincent de Paul to use whatever services are available.
"It's called ‘hope' for us. Without it, we'd be picking up bodies out here — and we have," said Frank Bixenman, a volunteer with Catholic Community Services.
"I've seen it firsthand," he continued, "and it's not a pretty sight. It breaks your heart when you have to go out and see a baby dead.
We're finding that people are very sympathetic to the fact that it does take money to serve an evening meal despite donations.
–Pamela Atkinson, homeless advocate
Bixenman has been living on disability for the last seven years because of his terminal cancer. But four months ago, his apartment complex burned down.
"I got out in just what I was wearing that moment, which was just a pair of boxer shorts. And I didn't have nothing," he said.
Now he's among thousands of people who rely on daily meals from the St. Vincent De Paul Dining Hall to survive.
"Some of these folks here live here on the streets, so they have no access to really a lot of things," Bixenman said. "We have a laundry room here, we have showers; don't cost nothing."
But running a place like this costs roughly $35,000 a year, which is why, after 20 years, the Salvation Army decided the overhead was just too much to serve daily dinners here at the dining hall.
"We've been able to pull the community together to get involved," homeless advocate Pamela Atkinson said in a press conference Monday afternoon.
Atkinson said 15 religious groups, several businesses and some individuals will donate money, food and supplies, along with their time to serve the nearly 400 people a day who depend on dinners.
"We're finding that people are very sympathetic to the fact that it does take money to serve an evening meal despite donations," Atkinson said. "We know that if people don't get nourished, they get sick. If they're sick, they can't work; kids can't go to school and learn."
In addition to serving meals, the community volunteer effort hopes to expand into providing other case management services.
The Salvation Army will now focus on feeding families on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley with the help of their food trucks.