Homelessness in St. George: How big of a problem is it?

ST. GEORGE — Alone with a 4-month-old baby, Dana Hepworth’s only shelter was a bush to keep her and her baby warm through the nights.

Dana Hepworth, a 37-year-old single mother, stands with her 1-month-old baby and 5-year-old son Spencer at Switchpoint’s homeless shelter in St. George. Hepworth and her son, Spencer, were once living in bushes in St. George without a place to stay. Switchpoint Community Resource Center, St. George, Utah, March 15, 2018 | Photo by Spencer Ricks, St. George News

Hepworth, a 37-year-old single mother of eight children, was homeless in St. George — a city known for its tourism, golf courses and constant sunny weather. She was evicted from her home by an abusive ex-husband. He kept all of her children, she said, except her baby and her 11-year-old son, who started staying at friends’ houses.

“When I was evicted, I had no money to my name,” Hepworth said. “I was sad, hurt, disappointed.”

Hepworth would end up walking around at night because she couldn’t sleep much in the bushes, she said. And even though she didn’t have a roof over her head, she wasn’t unemployed; she was pulling in $7.34 an hour working at Sears before it closed down, which was nowhere near the amount needed to rent an apartment in St. George.

“I may be homeless, but I’m one of the better-off ones because I actually had a job each and every time that I was homeless,” Hepworth said.

After seven years of being homeless, living with friends and being in and out of local homeless shelters, Hepworth found a haven at Switchpoint Community Resource Center, a nonprofit homeless shelter and resource facility in St. George. Her baby has grown into a busy 5-year-old named Spencer, who attends kindergarten and loves Mario Kart. Spencer also now has a 1-month-old baby sister as well who, Hepworth said jokingly, is “spoiled.”

Hepworth is now on the cusp of finally moving into her own apartment after working a higher-paying job. After the experience of living on the streets, she said, being able to have her own place is something more than exciting.

The problem of homelessness in St. George

Hepworth isn’t alone in her struggles with homelessness in St. George. People in St. George often don’t realize how big of a problem homelessness is in Washington County, Switchpoint Director Carol Hollowell said.   

An overview of the St. George basin at sunset. Even though it may not always be seen, homelessness is a big problem in Southern Utah, Switchpoint Community Resource Center Director Carol Hollowell said. St. George, Utah, date not specified | Photo by alpenarts/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

“People think we don’t have (homeless people) because we don’t have large camps or people sleeping in our parks or people doing drugs on the bike trails,” Hollowell said. “People just think we’re a quiet, sleepy little town and that we don’t have those problems when we really do.”

A couple thousand individuals come through the Switchpoint shelter each year, including a consistent 80 people each night, Hollowell said. There are often 250 people each night on the waiting list to get into the shelter.

“We had to figure out how to prioritize people. If you’re a young able-bodied man and you have a good sleeping bag, maybe you’re OK for another month outside. If you’re 72 and we don’t think you’ll do good outside, we give you a higher vulnerability risk assessment.”

There’s a large spike in the number of homeless people seeking shelter at Switchpoint in the winter when it’s too cold in northern Utah. However, Hollowell said, there’s another big spike in the summer due to an influx of homeless from places like Las Vegas and Phoenix when it’s too hot there.

Eighty percent of the people who come to Switchpoint are working poor and can’t make enough for housing, Hollowell said. Many of the places for jobs in St. George are service-oriented, like hotels or golf courses, which have low wages for workers.

“It’s a tourist town, so that means people are being paid a low wage,” Hollowell said. “But because it’s a tourist town, there’s extremely high rent. … When you combine low wages and high cost of living, what you get is extreme poverty even though people are working.”

Many people who end up homeless do so because of substance addiction, mental health issues or disabilities, but many others simply have bad luck, Hollowell said. The Switchpoint homeless shelter will not turn away anyone for prior substance abuse problems, nonviolent criminal infractions or health issues.

Switchpoint Community Resource Center offers a homeless shelter and services for people in poverty. St. George, Utah, March 15, 2018 | Photo by Michael Egbert, St. George News

“There’s also a lot of people out there that did everything right and, through no fault of their own, will never be able to fully support themselves, like the elderly,” said Jennifer Anderson, manager of the Switchpoint community soup kitchen.

The soup kitchen is another branch of Switchpoint that aims to serve hot food to all people in need, regardless of whether or not they are homeless.

Many people who are homeless are hesitant to seek help from others because of a lot of built-up mistrust, Anderson said.

“Once you sit across from somebody and hear whatever issues that led him to living on the street, he’s still a person and he still needs love and respect,” Anderson said. “Once you get into a pattern, it’s hard to break out of it without help.”

How to help

Kaysha Sorensen, a mother in St. George and member of the Dixie Sunrise Rotary Club, saw an idea on social media to make “homeless kits” for people in need. It has now become something like a family tradition to make and distribute these kits, she said.

Cropped copy of a letter 11-year-old Taegyn Sorensen wrote to a news outlet, emailed to St. George News March 4 by his mother. In it, he writes about how people can help others who are homeless in St. George. | Letter courtesy of Kaysha Sorensen, St. George News

“We keep them in the back of our car, and whenever we see people on the street begging for money or food, my kids get excited and grab one of the kits to give them.” 

The kits include items like soup, snacks, water bottles, protein items such as beef jerky, gloves when it’s cold and information on places to get help – Switchpoint, for example.

People can help tackle the problem of homelessness in St. George by donating or volunteering at the shelter or soup kitchen.

Besides the shelter and soup kitchen, Switchpoint also provides job training and other classes for people to learn how to break addictions or support themselves.

“It costs $12 each night to have someone stay at the shelter and that includes case management,” Hollowell said. “When people know that, sometimes they’ll say, ‘OK I can donate for someone to stay 30 days at the shelter.’”

Hollowell hopes people will understand that homelessness in St. George is a problem, she said, and there are ways they can help fight it.

“As people are considering charities, there are so many good causes in the world, We hope the community wants to keep dollars in our own community instead of writing a check to somewhere else around the world.”

Donating food to the soup kitchen at the Grace Episcopal Church in St. George or to the Utah Food Bank will also help those in the community who are struggling to feed themselves or their family, Anderson said.

The community also needs to come together to look for ways to provide more affordable housing, Hollowell said.

Or perhaps those who want to do more can follow the advice of Sorensen’s 11-year-old son Taegyn, who wrote a letter to a news outlet that his mother emailed to St. George News; in it he suggests: “Everyone can help by makeing [sic] a kit and put it in the car and if they see a homeless person, thay [sic] can give it to them. I hope homeless people can get more food.”

Ed. note Mar. 31: CORRECTION is made to the spelling of Kaysha and Taegyn Sorensen’s last name as it was previously incorrectly spelled in this report.

Email: sricks@stgnews.com

Twitter:  @STGnews | @SpencerRicks

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.

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16 Comments

  • mmsandie March 22, 2018 at 8:24 pm

    Single mom new baby , 8 children whose supporting them where are the fathers or husband. Stop háving babies..they say school kids dont hav3 food, at Dixie sun mexicans get breakfast, lunch at school. I saw Mexicans come out of school on Dixie, m9m is there they walk to McDonald’s , all 8 kids have a bag of food from McDonald’s and bug drinks, where do they get the m9ney.?
    All that money spent there can get a weeks of groceries,, whose in charg3 here?

    • Allison March 22, 2018 at 8:50 pm

      Are you perfect? Be careful when you judge people. Honestly we are all human. Im assuming you’ve never needed anything from anyone?

    • Allison March 22, 2018 at 8:52 pm

      Pro tip…. Spell check is a plus before calling someone out.

      • Real Life March 22, 2018 at 9:16 pm

        Sandie is right. If this woman can’t afford birth control, then she most definitely can’t afford 8 children. And her burden is now everyone else’s burden.

    • Roberts_3 March 23, 2018 at 3:07 pm

      Are you serious??? Why do you automatically assume they are Mexican?? Because they are dark skinned? This ignorant mentality blaming everything on “Mexicans”. Educate yourself you racist!

      • comments March 23, 2018 at 6:17 pm

        To be fair, if they came from Dixie Sun school, odds are they were Mexican, at least the parents; kids could easily be citizens. Also, Micky D’s can be pretty cheap depending of what you order. Stick to the dollar menus and a few bucks goes a long way. Just don’t wanna make a habit of it 😉

  • Waid March 22, 2018 at 8:49 pm

    There are always a few greedy, self-centered, inconsiderate people who will take advantage of the generosity of others. By-and-large, homeless folks, many of whom are abused women and their children, really need and appreciate the assistance that Switchpoint provides. Switchpoint is a very worthy organization making great contributions to our community. It deserves our support, and our donations!

  • PlanetU March 22, 2018 at 9:10 pm

    Very, VERY difficult to have sympathy for someone with a NEW BABY and 7 other kids AND 7 years of being homeless. Use your brain that God gave you and stop breeding.

    • Sheri March 23, 2018 at 11:04 am

      I guess I want to know where child protective services are in this.. it is dangerous to have kids sleeping in the street. Why did she not take advantage of the medical benefits you know she receives and have her tubes tied? I also cannot feel empathy for the lady in this article. There are several jobs that pay way more that $7 an hour, be an adult and take responsibility. Have some self pride.

      • ladybugavenger March 23, 2018 at 2:36 pm

        Right! Walmart starts out at $10 an hour

        • comments March 23, 2018 at 6:23 pm

          Don’t most of the junk service jobs around here usually bottom out at $10 nowadays? It still isn’t enough to live on in this town, but it beats 7.34 or whatever. There at the end of its life Sears would prob hire about anyone just to keep warm bodies manning the cash registers. Same thing w/ kmart. They might we under 10/hr, I have no idea. If the women has a criminal history she may not be able to snag a 10/hr service job. We can only speculate. The only thing we know for certain is she needs to stop birthing offspring.

  • comments March 22, 2018 at 10:24 pm

    I very much respect what an organization like switchpoint is trying to do. It might even be the next something i volunteer for in the future.

    I didn’t want to say it, and was trying to hold back my negative feelings, but I agree with what the others have said about the woman in the article. Please stop having kids if you can’t take care of the ones you already have! And how many different dads do these 8 or 9 kids have, I wonder. I feel very sorry for the woman’s children. Kids deserve a better shot in life than what she’s set them up with.

    …What is that called where you get a female cat sterilized? spayed? Do you spay a female human? What’s the technical term for human female castration?

    Personal responsibility needs to factor in at some point. I respect the fact that the woman has put an effort to remain employed, and she may not be a bad person, but please, for the sake of the children, learn some personal responsibility.

  • ladybugavenger March 23, 2018 at 9:23 am

    She got pregnant while being homeless? Where’s that sperm donor he needs to pay!

    • comments March 23, 2018 at 2:41 pm

      You’re assuming she even knows who it is, LBA. Maybe she can narrow it down to a handful of men. Or it could be a combo of many drunken hookups from bars and a not-so-great memory. I can only speculate, but I’ve seen that scenario far too many times.

      • ladybugavenger March 23, 2018 at 4:06 pm

        That’s some Maury stuff right there 😉 and you are…….not the father. Update: 6 more DNA tests have been done and we are still looking for the father

  • Sheri March 23, 2018 at 11:07 am

    Switchpoint is a great organization. It would be amazing if as a community we band together to raise enough funds to really make a long lasting difference. Possibly find a way to build lower income housing or transitional housing and job training.

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