“You can’t understand someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.” That’s exactly what Salt Lake City mayor Ben McAdams was thinking when he was faced with the task of deciding where his community’s next homeless shelter would go.
After a month of public debates and two years of his staff drafting up a plan, Ben felt something key was missing from the decision-making… no one really knew what it was like for a homeless person in their city. He set out to get at least a glimpse into the lives of the homeless citizens of Salt Lake City, “I needed to see firsthand, to understand the complexity of the recommendation I was being asked to make,” he told Deseret News.
Mayor Ben McAdams is like any city mayor. He’s involved in his community…
And makes appearances at special city events.
But recently, when he was faced with the tough decision of where to put his city’s third homeless shelter, he didn’t think he could make the decision.
He didn’t have all the information, and that left him with a bad feeling. So a few months back, he left his office on a Friday — without an ID or money — and walked to one of the city’s roughest neighborhoods.
His plan: to learn what his city’s homeless residents experienced both in shelters and on the streets.
Ben spent his first night on the streets. It was cold, close to freezing, and raining. Why would anyone do this willingly when there were shelters at their disposal?
But the next night, he quickly got his answer.
Ben checked into a homeless shelter and was put in the men’s dorm.
“One person told me to be sure not to use the restroom at night because it wasn’t safe,” Ben said. Drug use, violence, and just a general unease made it clear why people would opt to not stay in shelters at night. “I didn’t feel safe,” Ben noted.
But what really affected him was his encounter with a family. The mother and father were staying in the shelter with their 9-year-old autistic child. “It deepened in me a commitment that we’ve got to do better for these kids.”
Ben kept his undercover operation a secret, only telling a few key people including his worried wife. But since his return, the mayor has started a drastic overhaul of his city’s shelters.
All families with children in downtown shelters were relocated to alternative housing or to a family-centric shelter.
Drug use is prohibited now, with a zero-tolerance policy, and security patrols go around to ensure that the residents are safe and abiding by the rules.
Ben chose a location for the city’s third shelter, and some nearby residents were naturally upset with him. To that, he said, “this work isn’t about me. It’s about doing the right thing for people who are in crisis.”
“I ran for office to make a difference, not to have a job.” And while many disagree with him, he is doing it.
Share this brave mayor’s story today!