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.
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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
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.
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