SALT LAKE CITY — As state officials work through the challenges of adopting a new model for homeless services, one woman who knows what it’s like to sleep on the streets is helping to save lives.
Jen Spencer came up with a solution for shelter that people can wear or carry with them when there’s nowhere warm to go. It’s called the Turtle Shelter Project because turtles carry their shelters on their backs.
“This is like a shelter that you can wear on your back,” Spencer said, holding up a well-made foam vest with a waterproof hood.
The Turtle Shelters are made of rip-stop nylon and foam and conserve heat, even when wet. In addition to the waterproof hoods, they have insulated collars and pockets.
“When you put your hand in there when you’re wearing it, it’s like putting your hand into a heater,” Spencer said, sliding her hand into the padded pocket.
Spencer knows how the chill can dig into a person’s body when the sun goes down and there’s nowhere warm to go. She came up with the idea for Turtle Shelters after she spent time several years ago living in her truck, addicted to meth.
“It’s horrible,” Spencer said. “As soon as the sun goes down you know that the heat source is gone.”
The idea of the Turtle Shelter Project is to save people’s lives on the streets so they can have a chance at a new life. Spencer learned about foam clothing at an emergency preparedness conference and felt like she needed to do something.
“I was like really excited because I had just been homeless three months prior to this,” she said. “It was a really brutal winter and I remember it was so cold that you couldn’t even think.”
She said seven of her friends had frozen to death.
“How many lives could be saved if they had access to this technology?” she wondered at the time.
Spencer believed she could make a difference, but the foam clothing technology was too expensive — and she couldn’t sew.
“No, there’s got to be a way we can get these into the hands of the homeless, so they can have access to it,” she said.
So, she talked about it to anybody who would listen, until, she said, divine intervention led her to Angela Roth at her church, who was looking for meaningful ways to use her sewing skills. The two of them got to work a couple of years ago.
“I knew once people knew what this can do, I knew people would get excited about it because it’s like magic what it can do to save somebody’s life,” she said.
On Wednesday, 70 Salt Lake City employees pitched in to help with measuring, cutting and sewing after Mayor Jackie Biskupski organized a day of service at the City and County Building. All of them dug into the project eagerly.
“This is amazing. I’m overwhelmed,” she said, looking over the room full of volunteers.
She said she’s humbled by the extraordinary enthusiasm that others seem to be bringing to her project. Nearly 600 Turtle Shelters have already been given out on the Wasatch Front.
But, they’re not just making warm hoodies, Spencer said. They’re serving in a way that saves lives and shares love.
“Our main mission is to convey that they are loved,” she said. “That really is the most important goal here.”
In April, Jen will celebrate five years of being drug-free. The Turtle Shelter Project, she said, has given her a feeling of purpose and a way to serve.
A $30 donation pays for the materials needed for one Turtle Shelter, which takes eight hours of sewing to make.
You can get involved and donate money, time or sewing skills through their website.