Response: April 2016 Issue

Help and Change

Crossroads Urban Center in Salt Lake City has provided service and outreach to its community for 50 years and counting.

Help and Change
Juimi Miranda, 18, sorts clothes at the Crossroads Urban Center Thrift Store in Salt Lake City, Utah.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Salt Lake City's Crossroads Urban Center. Crossroads is a national mission institution of United Methodist Women, focused on helping the city's poor and homeless.

This may seem strange at first. After all, Salt Lake City is place of gleaming temples, a center for banking and finance, surrounded by spectacular mountains hosting high-end ski resorts. It was the home of the 2002 Winter Olympics. Poverty in Salt Lake?

Yes indeed, said Crossroads Associate Director Bill Tibbitts. "There's the economy for people who have training and connections, and there's the economy for people who don't."

While jobs in the banking and the tax sector pay well, the tourism industry — restaurants, hotels, fast food, ski resorts — is built on a foundation of low-wage workers.

Food, clothing and advocacy

Almost 20 percent of the city's residents fall below the poverty level. (The poverty rate for the more affluent Salt Lake County is about half that.) In addition to low-wage workers, single mothers, immigrants, people with disabilities and the homeless make up Salt Lake's low-income residents. A recent city study found that 24,000 households need low-income housing and only 16,000 of such units are available.

"So there's a gap of about 8,200 families that are paying a lot more than they can afford for rent," Mr. Tibbitts said. And these are families that have someone working.

Crossroads' main office is located a bit southeast of downtown in an area that has historically been a low-income neighborhood. Sixty percent of the residents are renters rather than owners. But gentrification is squeezing out some residents, and some business leaders hope to move the homeless altogether out of the nearby area around Pioneer Park.

Crossroads' programs to deal with these issues fall into the general categories of food, clothing and advocacy.

Located in their main building, Crossroads' emergency food pantry opened in 1967. It is one of Utah's busiest food pantries, having helped more than 17,000 households in 2014. One Friday morning found volunteers Carol Burnison, Anthony Strong and Mr. Strong's teenage daughter, Tia, busy stocking the shelves and filling food orders.

"A lot of stuff was given to me over the years when I needed help," said Mr. Strong, who is retired after working as a chef for 37 years. "It's good to give back, and besides, that's the way I was raised. You don't just take, take, take from this world."

Mr. Burnison, 83, is retired from the U.S. Department of Agriculture veterinary service. He volunteers at the food pantry three days a week, driving a truck to pick up food, some of it from the Mormons' huge food processing Welfare Square operation. He keeps an inventory of what's in stock and helps orient new volunteers.

Mr. Burnison says that many of the people who come in for food are single mothers, often Mexican women whose husbands have been deported by immigration authorities.

Three miles west of the food pantry, the Crossroads Thrift Store occupies a little box of a building jammed with clothing and household goods. In 2014, it served more than 4,300 households representing more than 13,000 individuals. The thrift store's business model would puzzle the world's capitalist class: it gives away 10 items free for every one it sells.

K.C. Owens, the store's manager, explained who qualifies for free clothing. "They need to get a voucher from anyplace besides here. They can go to any food pantry, the Department of Child and Family Services, churches, hospitals, schools ... just about any place can write them."

Those who don't get a voucher, perhaps because they're too proud to ask for help, can find very low-cost items, such as $1.50.

Ms. Owens moved to Salt Lake City in 1991 as a US-2 missionary. She worked in the food pantry at first. Then when the thrift store manager passed away in 1997, she took over that job.

Asked why she continues to do the job, Ms. Owens paused for a long time.

"You do things because it's the right thing to do. We don't get paid to do the right thing. That's here," she said, putting her hand over her heart.

In the thrift store's back room, 18-year-old Juimi Miranda was sorting clothes as part of her community service commitment. Ms. Miranda's family is from Chihuahua, Mexico. She likes sorting clothes, she said, but "coming in here and seeing all these single moms, all these people in need, this really brought it out to me, you know?"

As worthy as handing out food and clothing to those who need it is, Crossroads' vision goes further, hoping to put a dent in the conditions that lead to poverty and homelessness. That's where the advocacy programs come in. Two of the most significant of these are the Coalition of Religious Communities and the Anti-Hunger Action Committee.

Systemic change

The Anti-Hunger Action Committee is a membership organization of food pantry clients and volunteers that works on public policy issues. One current focus is working to expand Utah's Medicaid program, as Utah is one of the current 21 states that have declined to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

"As somebody who sees who we serve in our food pantry here, it's just hard to imagine what it would be like if all of our homeless clients had a way to pay for mental health treatments, a way to pay for substance abuse treatment," said Mr. Tibbitts.

Other priorities for the committee include increasing the amount of low-income housing in the city, making public transportation more affordable and working to prevent cuts to Social Security Disability Insurance that could occur in 2016.

The goal of the Coalition of Religious Communities, Mr. Tibbitts said, "is to educate faith communities about poverty and elected officials about Utah's religious diversity." The coalition also works on expanding Medicaid, along with regulating the payday lending industry. Payday lenders charge exorbitant interest rates for short-term loans to the people who can least afford it. Utah does not impose a ceiling on what they can charge. As a result, the state's 599 payday lenders charged an average annual interest rate in 2014 of 466 percent. (That compares to 250 percent charged by the New York mafia in the 1960s.) But regulating payday lending is difficult in Utah because of the industry's political connections: two former Utah attorneys general are now facing federal bribery charges because of the corrupting influences the industry had on them.

The Coalition of Religious Communities works to build public support for these issues and also organizes faith lobbying days at the state capitol. The coalition has 15 different faith-based communities involved, ranging from the Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) to Muslims.

"That's part of what makes it a nice project," said Mr. Tibbitts. "If over the course of the [legislative] session you're talking with the same legislators, and one week you're with Lutheran pastors and the next week you're with Episcopalian priests and the week after that you've got some Methodist ministers, and they're all saying the same thing but in a different way, I think it helps [legislators] to see that we're not just there because somebody's paying us to show up."

This ecumenical approach extends to all of Crossroads' projects.

"We really are appreciative of the other churches in town that support Crossroads," said board member Mary Ann Allison, a member of United Methodist Women. "We couldn't do it alone; there's not enough of us."

United Methodist Women is a key part of Crossroads. United Methodist Women has owned Crossroads' main building since 1905. Originally a deaconess home, in 1937 it became a residence for young women working or going to school in Salt Lake City. Crossroads opened in the building in 1966.

"Over the years we've become ecumenical, and today I'd say multifaith," said Crossroads Executive Director Glenn Bailey, "and we also have people who have no particular faith commitment who believe very strongly in what we do. But our roots are really in the United Methodist tradition, and more specifically in the mission tradition of the United Methodist Women.

"It's a relationship where we're able to do the work of United Methodist Women, of The United Methodist church, and do it in such a way that we include many, many other people, and hopefully reflect the love and concern of the women of the church in a real, tangible way," he continued. "It's important going both ways. It's important for them that they have national mission institutions like this doing this work, and it's certainly important for us to have their support and commitment."

Jim West is an editorial photographer and writer based in Detroit, Michigan, and a frequent contributor to response.

Posted or updated: 4/4/2016 11:00:00 PM