‘Home sweet home’: Life in Salt Lake City’s temporary housing units

Dec 21, 2023, 1:10 PM | Updated: 1:20 pm

jackson smiles in his new home, provided by the state as a temporary shelter for the homeless popul...

Jackson smiles in his new home. (Hugo Rikard-Bell, KSL NewsRadio)

(Hugo Rikard-Bell, KSL NewsRadio)

SALT LAKE CITY — “Come in!”

The site containing temporary housing pods is so spick and span, the door on Jackson’s private unit didn’t even squeak as it swung open.

“Hey there, nice to meet you,” Jackson said.

He sat on a chair that folds out from the wall next to a table that does the same. He was facing his window and on the sill was a small tablet with YouTube up. An old music video from an era long forgotten played. Jackson didn’t bother to pause it.

His new home is a 75-square-foot ‘pod’, one of 50 that makeup Utah’s first micro shelter, built on Redevelopment Agency-owned land at 600 West and 300 South in Salt Lake City.

It finally opened last week after months of construction and some delays after difficulty finding a service provider. Thankfully for the project, the nonprofit Switchpoint put their hand up to run the site until April 30.

A place to lie down

Jackson’s space is small but warm. He has a shelf with Christmas decorations, snacks, canned food and multiple medication bottles.

Behind a curtain is his mattress, a bag of clothes and a sleeping bag. He can lock his door from the inside and has air conditioning as well.

“I’m Native American, full-blood Navajo,” he said as he starts to give his proper introductions.

He explained he grew up in near poverty and has been homeless for decades.

“Going on 35 years?” he pondered. “I’ve been homeless 35 years, in Albuquerque and then Utah.”

As he paused to scratch his chin, the scabs and scars that cover his face came into full view. His hair was unevenly chopped and his nose had been broken at least once. But there was no dirt under his fingernails.

He looked freshly showered and smelled like deodorant. His clothes were clean.

Jackson explained he has spent two winters on the streets in Salt Lake City.

“This was [going] to be my third year. Very tough. Almost froze twice in a row.”

Jackson said he has a high risk of heart failure, and if he had to spend this winter on the street, it would have been his last.

“It’s been extremely cold, the last three nights. I was thinking would have gotten wet,” he said. “There’s limited space to lie down and rest your head without other homeless coming around, taking your stuff… bothering you for alcohol and drugs.”

“I was continuously visiting the hospital twice a week. Now that I got this [shelter], they can monitor me and if I do have health problems, they’re right next door,” Jackson added.

It’s a harsh reality for the unhoused. Those with medical issues can seek treatment but often are forced to return to the streets after. Jackson said it’s an exhausting process.

Homeless in Salt Lake

Homelessness in Utah has increased almost 4% this year. According to the 2023 Annual Report on Homelessness, about 11 out of 10,000 people experience it in some form across the state.

A report released by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development last week found that homelessness across the country hit a record high this year. According to the HUD’s report, it rose 12% nationally since 2022.

Illegal camping has also become a common sight in downtown Salt Lake. So much so that nine businesses and residents filed a joint complaint in September to the Utah Supreme Court against the city because of the impact camps have had on them and their businesses.

An effort is being made at local and state levels of government to combat homelessness, the temporary camp Jackson is calling home over the winter being a hallmark example.

It’s small though, with only 50 beds available to a growing number of those in need. At the time of reporting, at least 20 beds were already taken. 

Drugs and homelessness

Jackson explained that he wasn’t always homeless. He worked on and off in construction. Five years ago, he said his life was on track.

“My mum, my dad lived with me… I was paying rent in West Valley, and the COVID-19 struck.”

It’s unclear the exact chain of events but he said he cared for his mother when her health declined.

“My brothers don’t like me, due to me wanting to take care of my mum and… I’d say my sexuality.”

Jackson didn’t linger on that last bit. He moved on casually to his struggles with addiction, but it allowed a brief insight into an intimate struggle few may understand.

“Crystal meth, alcohol, marijuana and spice and a new drug… a blue pill,” he continued.

Without a lab report and a sample, it’s impossible to confirm exactly what the new drug Jackson describes is. However, fentanyl is the fastest-rising narcotic trafficked and distributed in Salt Lake City. It commonly appears in the form of a blue pill.

“One night a guy had five of them, [and we took them] and I got a headache for three days and I was like, I had to quit,” Jackson said.

Produced largely by the Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico, Assistant Special Agent in Charge with the Drug Enforcement Administration in Utah, Dustin Gillespie, said the fentanyl market is saturated for many reasons.

Since the arrest of Cartel boss El Chapo in 2014 and his sentencing in 2019, there has been a power vacuum within the ranks of the international crime syndicate. 

Gillespie said that has fostered an increase in independent manufacturers making their own pills outside of the cartel and sending them to the U.S.

This has led to an oversupply of the drug and ultimately driven the price down, making it far more accessible to addicts everywhere.

“18 months ago, a single pill cost around $12, now you’re looking at between 80 cents and $1,” Gillespie said.

Just over a week ago Utah Highway Patrol made a bust of around 65 pounds of fentanyl pills in Grand County. Earlier this year 26 Utahns received federal indictments over a drug trafficking ring spanning from West Valley to Park City.

Jackson said he has been sober now for a little over a month, “I feel pretty good, I feel good. That’s where I want to keep it.”

“I kept going to [the] hospital and I knew that it [drug use] was the cause of my hospitalization so I decided I’d just quit everything, just walk away from everything,” he added.

Christmas at Jackson’s

“I’m ready for Christmas,” Jackson said with a laugh. His eyes lit up as he turned and pointed to a small paper tree on his table.

He flicked a little switch and tiny LED lights, blue, red, yellow and green start flashing. They illuminated small, wrapped items that Jackson had spread around it.

“This is definitely the most ‘home sweet home’ I’ve ever felt,” he said.

“I’m very thankful that Utah has allowed time for [me] to live a little longer… they came up with this unit for me to sleep in and provide safety for us instead of being out there,” Jackson said, adding, “I just sit here, you know, and be mesmerized by my tree, and I have my presents that people gave me that I can’t wait to open.”

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‘Home sweet home’: Life in Salt Lake City’s temporary housing units