News / Utah / 

Liesl Nielsen,

Meet Utah's homeless: Tonya's story of redemption and recovery

By Liesl Nielsen, | Posted - Apr. 24, 2019 at 7:03 a.m.

This archived news story is available only for your personal, non-commercial use. Information in the story may be outdated or superseded by additional information. Reading or replaying the story in its archived form does not constitute a republication of the story.

Editor's note:’s “Homeless” series will feature four individuals experiencing homelessness in the Salt Lake Valley. The first can be found here. This is Tonya's story.*

SALT LAKE CITY — As Tonya walks into the small office of The Road Home in downtown Salt Lake, her neat appearance makes it difficult to tell whether she lives at the homeless shelter or works there.

Her faded blue jeans are worn but clean, and her bright blue T-shirt is tucked carefully into her belt. She adjusts her glasses and runs a hand through her short salt-and-pepper hair. Her other hand is wrapped in bandages and held steady with a splint.

She sits down on the folding chair that's been sequestered in the corner of the tiny office for the purposes of this interview, and it's clear: She doesn't work here.

On childhood and family

"We know you were meant to be in our family,” Tonya recalls her adoptive mother telling her throughout her childhood.

Years ago, her mother had been in the process of adopting a little girl in Utah, but the adoption agency lost the girl’s papers.

“(The paperwork) was in a pile, and (the girl’s) stuff was in the middle, but her paperwork was the only paperwork to go down behind the back of the filing cabinet," Tonya says.

A friend of her mother’s said she knew of a faster way to adopt a child from Mexico, and just a few days after Tonya was born, her mother sneaked her over the border back to what would be her home in North Salt Lake. She became the youngest child in a family of seven, and the only adopted one.

She always felt incredibly loved by her parents, who she said would “bend over backwards” for their children. She was especially close to her father and has always been inspired by his ability to overcome his abusive childhood and end the cycle.

Every time I start to struggle a little bit, I’m like, ‘Dad changed big. So if he can do it, I gotta be able to do it.’ It can’t just be one person in the world that can do that.

On loss

Tonya has drawn on that inspiration throughout her life as death became a frequent visitor.

When she was 8 years old, her 20-year-old sister died of a kidney disease. From that moment on, “the perfect household changed,” Tonya says. She describes her sister as her "rock" and "the glue that held the family together."

Decades later, Tonya lost her mother, father, two brothers and several friends — all within a short time span.

On addiction

It was the initial loss of her sister, though, that caused Tonya to lose herself, too, she says.

She started doing poorly in school, and when her brother just five years older than her began using drugs, she did too. She was in second grade when she started smoking "and it just progressed from there" — though she says she learned to hide it better than her brother. He would have "killed" her had he known she was using anyway, she laughed.

Tonya’s parents eventually felt forced to ask her brother to leave the house because they could see his drug use had an effect on her, she says. He became homeless for awhile but is now doing well and is married with two children. Tonya says she stuck by him through the whole thing.

She has a few words of advice for those dealing with loved ones struggling with addiction:

Tonya has been completely sober — from both drugs and alcohol — for a year now.

I stay as far away from that stuff as I can possibly get now. It’s just not the life I want anymore, and it’s not something I’ll ever go back to.

On homelessness

Tonya has spent time at The Road Home twice.

"First time was of my own doing, and this time, not so much,” Tonya says.

The 41-year-old first ended up at The Road Home five years ago after a period of addiction and alcoholism. She stayed there for six months to a year, though she says she had no concept of time while she was in a drug-induced state.

She ended up back in The Road Home in October 2018 when she realized she could not pay for rent and food as well as an unexpected medical issue. She is currently working and has health insurance, though she says she still can’t afford some medical treatment she needs — like a machine that helps her breathe at night and an operation for her bandaged arm.

She also has a few things she wishes others understood about homelessness:

The good news though? The day after this interview, she moved out of The Road Home and into a place of her own. She says money will still be tight, but her church will help her buy the food she needs.

On recovery

The road to recovery wasn’t easy, though. It was only after a few suicide attempts and a child’s plea that Tonya felt the will to change her life:

Soon after, she joined a support group that she says helped her rewrite the way she thinks about her story.

I’ve realized it really does come down to mindset. I mean, that’s where you win or lose the battle.

On gratitude and improvement

Despite life's hardships, Tonya is grateful for those who've helped her along the way.

She's grateful for her job and the opportunity it gives her to serve people by providing captions for deaf people making phone calls. She’s grateful for the Uber drivers who don't charge her when they drive her home after a late night at work and realize she’s homeless.

And she’s even grateful that she has experienced homelessness. It's helped her understand what the community still needs and isn’t getting, she says.

She hopes those going through what she did will eventually receive better mental health resources and healthier food to help them feel the energy they need to make changes. And if she had her wish, she would even make 10-minute, weekly massages available, just so those at the shelter can experience physical touch on occasion — something Tonya argues can be truly healing.

The biggest problem down here, (though), is that people don’t feel heard. ... After five minutes of me talking with somebody, I’m their best friend in the whole world because they feel like they've been heard.

If you'd like to help others like Tonya experiencing homelessness in Utah, contact your local homeless shelter to find out how you can donate or volunteer.

Suicide prevention resources
If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, KSL encourages you to call the suicide prevention hotline at 1-800-273-TALK.

Crisis Hotlines

  • Utah County Crisis Line: 801-226-4433
  • Salt Lake County/UNI Crisis Line: 801-587-3000
  • Wasatch Mental Health Crisis Line: 801-373-7393
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK
  • Trevor Project Hotline for LGBTQ teens: 1-866-488-7386

Online resources

*The Road Home has asked that Tonya's last name and pictures of her face not be included with this story in order to protect her privacy.

Related Stories

Liesl Nielsen

KSL Weather Forecast