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SALT LAKE CITY — Hip-hop music blared Saturday in downtown Salt Lake City’s Rio Grande district as dozens of people experiencing homelessness gathered to receive donations and services.
Melvin Freeman said he rode his bike to the event to get some warm clothes and food, and explore treatment options. He wanted to get help, he said.
The winters, Freeman explained, are tough for him here. But it’s difficult to see a way out of homelessness because of the conditions he suffers with.
“I can’t stand the cold. I’m not from here. I can’t stand the cold. I’ve got diabetes, and depression, and anxiety, a whole bunch of stuff that I’m going through. Ended up at the shelter. I mean, in winter, it makes it a whole lot rougher,” Freeman explained.
At what organizers called the biggest event of its kind in Utah, several substance abuse disorder treatment providers and charitable organizers offered warm food, shoes, water, clothes and haircuts.
Many volunteers themselves said they’d been homeless in the past or were overcoming addictions.
“You know, I used to be here on the streets doing the same thing they’re doing. So being able to come back, give back. I appreciate people who gave to me, so just trying to do the same thing right back,” Jesse Garcia recalled.
He said 2 1/2 years ago he lived on the streets, before going through Odyssey House’s addiction treatment program. He’s since been clean and sober for more than a year.
“We’re just like them. People on the street, they just had one hard fall too many. Anybody is this close to being on the street. I went on the street because I got kicked out of my house. Had nowhere to live, nowhere to shower, couldn’t go to work. So it could happen to anybody,” Garcia said.
Matt Nielson, who said he is currently in rehab, also volunteered with members of his treatment facility.
Being able to help, he said, “means a lot. I haven’t been this bad, but I’ve been down bad roads, and I know how much something can mean to someone, just by a simple gift.”
“I can tell it means a lot to them,” he said.
A man who identified himself as “Mad Dog” ate as he eagerly waited in line to receive a haircut.
He said the warm donations were needed, as chilly “days like today, it’s not very good.”
For volunteer T.J. Simmons, who also said he struggled with addiction in the past, getting to help others “keeps me sober.”
“And I haven’t used in many years, and giving back is what matters because if people have something to hope for, like somebody actually cares, because 90% of these people that are going through their addiction or homelessness, it’s as if nobody really cares. And then the suicidal feelings come into play. I’ve been there, experienced it,” he said.
“So that’s why we come out here and show up, and let ‘em know, ‘Hey, you’re not forgotten. We’re all right here, standing behind you. Meeting people where they’re at.’”
For those experiencing addiction or homelessness, it’s easy to give up, Simmons explained. “So every one of us have all felt that need for connection or need for support, and didn’t really experience it.”
But the way society now looks at addiction and mental health is changing the lives of those who need help, Simmons said.
Volunteer Ian Rader also said the event means “everything” to him. He recalled being homeless in Los Angeles, and said he is where he is today because of strangers helping him. Now Rader says he owns two homes and co-owns a business.
“The only way I got to that point is by someone helping me.”