Monday, February 20, 2017

A Homeless Bishop?

Backyard in Salt Lake on Christmas Morning

The ground was covered with a thick blanket of fresh snow. My children, natives of hot, dry Boulder City were blessed to not only have snow but a very white Christmas. A smile spread from their face to my heart, but I was a little sorrowful. My plan had been to attend church downtown at a small branch of the church, and this 9” of snowfall would make it impossible. Salt Lake is home to the most powerful leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The prophet of God himself lives there, but my visit was not for the most powerful, but one whose calling is no less important.

Alan Urie lives in Salt Lake City and is known to many as the homeless Bishop, not because he doesn’t have a home, but because of his calling in his church. He serves as a branch president for a branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints whose congregation is mostly made up of Salt Lake City’s homeless population. And while I was unable to visit on Sunday, President Urie was kind enough to meet me later in the week.

“On any given Sunday, we have about 50 attendees,” President Urie began. “Ten to fifteen are leadership or those who have come to speak, and 30 to 35 are homeless who are living on the streets or in the nearby shelter.” As part of his calling he often works closely with the shelter and the programs they have.

He and I met in the comfort of a nearby soup and salad café, but Salt Lake at this time was anything but comfortable. It was now a few days after Christmas, and the large snowfall mounted high as temperatures had not risen much above freezing.

“The shelter has a maximum capacity of 500 but the last few nights they are close to 1,400.” He goes on to explain that this amounts to mats on a cold floor. Which may not sound nice but still beats the alternative.

This led to him explain an issue that I have not fully considered before. “The campus downtown is essentially an open campus and many people in and around the shelter are there simply to prey upon the homeless.”

I ask him to explain.

“Well, if you are a recovering addict, it is not beneficial to have a drug dealer who knows your weakness hanging around, constantly vying for your business. Not only that, theft is a huge problem, especially ID theft.”

Theft did not surprise me, but ID theft?

“Think about it,” he explained, “without ID you can’t get a job, get a room at a motel, or apply for a government program. Now think what you would do if you lost your ID. You need other ID to get a new one. What do you do if your homeless and you have no other ID? It can be a big challenge in helping those in need.”

“So a closed campus would be better?”

He paused, “Yes, in some ways."

Currently, I found out that Salt Lake has proposed building 4 new shelters and closing the current one. They will be more closed, with 150 beds each, but this made me wonder, what will they do on nights like tonight, when 600 total beds does not even reach half the need?

Getting back to his congregation, I ask, “What do you feel your role is?”

“Number one, to provide a spiritual shelter for them. Visitors always note the particular strong spirit in our meetings. We all need the gospel, but these people’s need for healing, the Savior, and his teachings, really increase the spirit in the meetings.

“Also, our branch plays a role in helping them through the day to day struggles, like finding a job or getting through addiction,” he continued. “We meet every Wednesday to have an Addiction Recovery Program (ARP) meeting. No matter what, we never cancel this meeting. In fact, every night there is an ARP meeting somewhere in the valley. Some people need that meeting daily as they overcome addiction and we want to be there for them.”

“You say you are there to help, but can you give some specific example where you have been able to help?” I ask.

“Sure,” he said, “many people think most homeless are chronically so, but an analysis was done at the shelter and showed that 70% of occupants are what we call ‘flow through,’ or people homeless for 90 days or less. So, if you can help them get out of homelessness before it becomes a chronic issue, that can be a success. One example was an older lady who came to our branch. She had lost her apartment because she was helping a relative and had given this relative access to her bank account. The person had spent all her money, and she had been evicted. So, we helped close the account, get her a new account. Then helped her get her checks going to the proper place. We then helped her find a new apartment, she lives there today and is doing well. All she needed was someone to step in and help her handle some family dysfunction.

“Another example is we are working with a woman who has a disability. She gets a disability check each month. We helped her find housing within a program that she met the conditions for. The land lord has tried to throw her out for very silly reasons and we have stepped in to remind the land lord of the terms of the agreement.  This is another way we can assist, we know what land lords or job programs are out there for various situations and can connect the two.”

A story he told me that I would definitely qualify as a success was the only time he ever gave aid without meeting a person. “A gentleman was coming to town because he was able to get a ticket to SLC and that was all, but he had a job and place to live in Colorado. I verified his arrangements in Colorado and then bought him a ticket to continue on, so he wouldn’t have to stop in Salt Lake City. No reason to have him on the streets here for even one night if he had arrangements further along.”
Right now, I’m working with someone to get a job. He is very functional when he’s on his medication, but during a time when he wasn’t, he took a shopping cart and went around town collecting gnome lawn ornaments from people’s yards. He got permission from the people to take their gnomes, but failed to get permission to take the shopping cart. So, now he has a record for stealing and this has made it difficult to get a job, but we know employers who will work with this and we can help explain the situation.”

This really made me think. One of the most significant ways President Urie is able to help is by knowing and understanding what programs are out there and connecting them to those who need them. I’m not a homeless Bishop but couldn’t I do that? Those individuals on the streets may not know what programs are out there. Their access to the internet and research to discover those resources may be limited, but could I be a facilitator of good programs to those who need them? If I’m going to speak to homeless people, perhaps I should be doing more research to find what is out there that could help. That may be far more valuable than a few dollars to them.

I asked him, “what would you advise people do when they see people with signs on a corner?”
“I am very skeptical of people with signs. The further they are from downtown the less likely they are to actually be homeless, and if I ever see them get very far from their backpack I almost guarantee they are a fake. We talked about ID and theft, because of that, homeless do not allow themselves to get far from their bag.”

Overall, I was very grateful for the chance to meet this great man who gave so much time and effort to those who have so little, but of all he shared and taught me, my favorite had to be what he said near the end of our discussion:

“People ask me all the time, ‘It must be so hard to deal with all the issues you have to deal with in the homeless branch?’ I served as a Bishop in a regular family ward before, all the real issues we see here, addiction, job loss, family problems, mental health, inability to forgive, anger,…they are all the same; the only difference was those people had a doorbell.”

Alan Urie
President Alan T. Urie


  1. "A smile spread from their face to my heart." I love that imagery! Also, the tip about how to respond to those holding signs was very helpful. Protecting their ID makes sense. Hanging out here in Santa Cruz, I've noticed it has a HUGE homeless population, many of whom carry the most creative and compelling signs I've ever seen. I'll check for nearby backpacks on those days when I'm able to help.

  2. I was surprised what he said about that. It's the answers that surprise me that teach me the most.