‘Shocking’ experience: Utah mayor goes undercover as homeless man

‘Shocking’ experience: Utah mayor goes undercover as homeless man
The mayor of Salt Lake County, Utah went undercover as a homeless person with just the clothes on his back before deciding where to place a new shelter. He has now spoken out about his experience, saying he "didn't feel safe" due to drug abuse and violence.

Mayor Ben McAdams can generally be found wearing a suit as he governs Utah's most populous county.

However, he broke that rule on March 24, when he left his office wearing jeans, sneakers, and a hoodie, and embarked on his new adventure as a homeless person.

He and an unnamed colleague left the comfort of their homes, their IDs, and their money behind. For three days and two nights, they immersed themselves with the city's homeless population, spending one night in a shelter and one on the streets.

The experiment, according to McAdams, was aimed at "deepening" his understanding of the current homeless system before he was forced to make a decision on where to place the county's third homeless resource center – a decision he knew would anger residents of whichever town he picked.

Although the adventure took place months ago, McAdams managed to keep it under wraps until he was recently approached by the Deseret News, saying he didn't want it to seem like a "publicity stunt in the face of human suffering."

In fact, residents of various towns within the county had already taken part in heated public meetings.

But McAdams felt something was "missing" from those meetings. Despite his wife being hesitant about the plan, the official claimed he needed to get a firsthand experience to really grasp “the complexity of the recommendation” he was due to give.

Drugs & violence

McAdams and the county employee spent the first night on a street outside Salt Lake City's Rio Grande neighborhood in order to "understand why some people would choose not to go into shelter."

"It was cold — below 40s," McAdams recalled, adding that it was raining when he awoke. "You wonder why people would choose to do that, knowing that there were beds available in the shelter."

However, the answer to that question became clearer on the second night, when the two checked into a homeless shelter known as Road Home, which was riddled with drugs and violence.

McAdams witnessed his bunkmate in the dorms injecting drugs into his arm, according to two unnamed people who spoke to the Deseret News. However, McAdams declined to comment on the incident.

"I don't want to focus on my brief firsthand experience because I know there are people who see the same and worse every single day," he said. "The things I saw in my very brief time were shocking and reaffirmed my commitment to take action now."

He did, however, confirm that he saw evidence of drug use, including the presence of what he believes was the smell of smoke from drugs "all night long."

The mayor also recalled an "altercation" breaking out between two men about 20 feet away from his bunk, with one dragging the other off his bed, his head hitting the concrete floor.

McAdams was also told not to take off his shoes, because they would be stolen if he did. He was also advised to use his bag as a pillow, to avoid his other belongings being taken.

"One person told me to be sure not to use the restroom at night because it wasn't safe," he said, adding that he assumed the comment was a reference to sexual violence.

"I didn't feel safe," he said. "It was a fairly chaotic environment.”

Remarking on the Rio Grande neighborhood itself, McAdams said that "drug dealing is at every corner."

He also recalled meeting with a homeless family, including a nine-year-old child with autism.

"What psychological trauma is probably inflicted on a child who doesn't know where he's going to sleep or where his next meal is going to come from?" he asked, noting that "we've got to do better for these kids."

McAdams said he ended the three-day experience knowing that "doing nothing is not an option, even if it's the end of me politically."

The mayor eventually decided to place the new homeless shelter in Salt Lake City, near the intersection of 3300 South and 1000 West. The new shelter, along with two others, will open in 2019.

The 1,062-bed Road House, where McAdams stayed, will close when the other three sites open.

The number of people using state- and federally-funded emergency shelters in the state of Utah jumped five percent from 2014-2016, according to a state report cited by The Salt Lake Tribune in February. Those numbers contradicted a federal report which showed a nine percent reduction in the homeless population during the same period.