A “pop-up” approach to helping the homeless? Everything helps
This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to finding solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.
The Winter Survival Guide is packed with practical advice.
“Line the inside of your tent walls with space blankets and tape to keep the heat in,” advises one site.
“Hand sanitizer is great fuel in a pinch and can burn in a can (like a soup or beer can) as a small stove if needed. Fold in the top lip of the can so it’s less likely to spill all over the place if you knock it over.”
The Winter Survival Guide is one of many resources available in the Coconut Hut, a place where vulnerable people can gather essential gear to survive the freezing season.
The Coconut Hut is tucked away in a greenhouse on Green Phoenix Farm, just west of downtown Salt Lake City. It offers what Courtney “Coco” Giles calls “survival gear” for people living on the streets this winter.
Tables are set up in a semicircle and people come in to get sleeping bags that guarantee warmth down to 0 degrees. There are hygiene kits, warm clothing and hand sanitizer to burn for warmth.
The goal is to ensure “that our vulnerable people, who either cannot go to shelter for whatever reason, or who don’t want to go to shelter, have everything they need to survive for one night,” Giles explains . “If they make it through the night and their stuff is taken by mitigation or the police the next day, they can come and get the exact same stuff.”
Bulletin boards are filled with information about community service resources, open shelters, and a list of the number of people who have been helped. Colorful thank you cards lie on a table.
Even on a cold, gray day, the light in the greenhouse seems bright. People who come in for a tarp or sleeping bag stay and help others sort through supplies or pick out a new coat and a pair of warm socks.
“It’s a place for the community to volunteer, be together, celebrate and laugh,” Giles said. “I’m all about laughing.”
The Coconut Hut is part of a growing grassroots effort to reach vulnerable people where they are – call it a “pop-up” approach to eradicating homelessness.
Some people gather their friends and come with a hot meal for the people living under the highway overpass. Others, like the Food Justice Coalition, provide meals to people living on the fringes. The work grows out of a public desire to “do something”—to fill a need and complement government programs and policies to address a seemingly never-ending tide of homelessness.
“We have a lot of basic needs to address,” said Andrew Johnston, director of homelessness policy at the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Office. “Groups that come together and volunteer their time, money and resources — I think that’s helpful.”
Johnston, a former Salt Lake City City Council member and social worker, said the city can help fund the work through grants. “You don’t expect people to go through town for all this work because most of the work is done by grassroots organizations and nonprofits,” Johnston said. “We want to encourage them to be proactive and do what they do best in their niche and then support them wherever we can.”
The Coconut Hut is different from other resources, Giles said, because people can come and pick up what they want and need every Tuesday and Wednesday. It’s a reliable place to get a warm jacket or a can of Sterno, but also a place to socialize and find community.
“I think one of the main advantages of this space,” Giles wrote in one text, “is that they feel welcome and safe enough not only to get items, but to stay here and help do something for them.” to enable, which in turn gives them dignity and purpose.”
Giles is a Green Team advocate at Wasatch Community Gardens Green Phoenix Farm. Through her work with this program, she spends a lot of time driving around Salt Lake City, meeting vulnerable people and helping them navigate the maze of social services.
Located just blocks northwest of the Rio Grande Depot, where other social services are provided, the farm focuses on helping vulnerable women through job training and mentoring. Graduates of the Green Phoenix Farm program also volunteer at the Coconut Hut.
But from December to February the retraining program ends to prepare for the next season. (The Coconut Hut will close for spring planning for the winter on February 4, but organizers plan to reopen.)
This year Giles took the time to open the Coconut Hut in the farm’s greenhouse with Angela Arnell.
Arnell has been helping unprotected Utahns alone for the past year and a half and met Giles in October. “I just know a lot of people who want to provide support, and Courtney knows a lot of people who need it,” Arnell said.
A volunteer raised funds and bought over 100 sleeping bags that can withstand freezing temperatures.
Cameron Giles (no relation to Courtney) discovered the Coconut Hut through a roommate who volunteered after seeing an Instagram post. Cameron also wanted to help. He’s recovering from a heroin addiction and “was semi-homeless for a few years,” he said. “So I have an easy understanding of how much it can suck.”
Volunteering at Coconut Hut is an easy way to get involved. “I needed something positive for my recovery,” Cameron said. “Anything related to my time, to keep me busy.”
“I think especially in the winter,” he said. “It’s good for us when we try to take care of each other.”
At least five people died on the open road this winter. Advocates began warning in early November that shelters were at full capacity. During a press conference at the state Capitol, Bill Tibbitts, deputy executive director of the Crossroads Urban Center, warned that children and families are being turned away from shelters.
In late December, more than a month after Tibbitt’s comments, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall signed an emergency executive order expanding emergency shelters.
“We have a lot more overflow shelters than we have in the past,” Johnston said. “It may not be enough yet, especially nationally. And that then leads to this other question, well, what else is needed? Whether tarps or tents, sleeping bags, things like that.”
Unprotected people camping this winter say rapid response teams and law enforcement are throwing away their gear. The Rapid Response Team has cleared the Rio Grande area 28 times in the past month, the Tribune previously reported.
Billy Ray Bratcher, 55, said his belongings had been thrown out at least three times. “If we’re not there, they come and throw our things away, and we lose all our belongings, so we have to start over,” Bratcher said.
“I wouldn’t say it’s intimidation, but it’s constant harassment,” he said. “[We’re] we are threatened with going to jail if we don’t pitch our tents, and it’s raining and snowing.”
The survival kits, clothing and other supplies “helped tremendously,” Bratcher said, “because the weather was just really, really bad.”
Kenya was busy helping her friends choose clothes when she finally stepped down to talk about the coconut hut. “I love this place,” she said.
On this January morning, she and Bratcher, who are partners, were told to take down the tarp and umbrella they had put up when it was raining. “We are not dogs,” Kenya said. “We don’t have to stand in the rain here. Its hard.”
“People froze to death,” said Kenya. “People I know, my friends, froze to death.”
“I’ve told a lot of people about this place,” she said. “Yes, I tell everyone. Every week I ask myself, ‘Are you going to the Coconut Hut?’”
To donate items to the Coconut Hut or learn more, visit us here.
https://www.sltrib.com/news/2023/01/26/pop-up-approach-lending-hand/ A “pop-up” approach to helping the homeless? Everything helps