SALT LAKE CITY — Documentary filmmaker Sally Shaum has spent a significant amount of time in Salt Lake County’s homeless shelters. She remembers filming at the Road Home’s downtown Salt Lake City shelter — a location frequently in the news for its crime, drug use and law enforcement issues — and seeing homeless mothers with young children.
“And I thought, ‘Whoa. That’s heavy,’” Shaum recalled. “You have all these children around people with substance abuse disorders, and I just wondered, ‘What is it like for these families?’”
Shaum explores that question in “A Home of Their Own,” a 30-minute documentary premiering Monday, Feb. 26, on local PBS affiliate KUED. “A Home of Their Own” focuses on these homeless families and their efforts to attain affordable housing, employment and childcare and deal with the myriad issues such homelessness can cause. Good changes have been made since Shaum’s initial exposure to these young homeless families, but the county still has a long way to go.
Local organization the Road Home manages the downtown shelter — which is scheduled to close in 2019 after three new homeless resource centers open in Salt Lake and South Salt Lake — as well as one in Midvale that now focuses on homeless families. “A Home of Their Own” examines the Midvale location and some of the families it has helped.
The Road Home’s Midvale shelter has a number of reps on-site from different organizations, dealing with housing, employment, welfare and education, among other needs. Each family’s needs are assessed, and a plan of action is made. If a family’s plan includes living at the shelter, they are shepherded upstairs to a large room packed with bunk beds. This space has a sleeping capacity of 300 — cramped and chaotic quarters, to say the least.
“And every mother that talked to me … said that took their breath away,” Shaum said. “They’re already traumatized — from being evicted, from whatever the situation was at home — they have one suitcase, and their kids are sick. So they’re not in good place when they come; nobody would be.”
Shailey Ovard, a mother of two, is featured in the documentary. Her family has stayed at the Midvale shelter a handful of times over the past few years. They’re currently living at a relative’s house, hoping to qualify for housing funding from Utah Community Action. (Living at the shelter disqualifies families from receiving the particular funding Ovard is seeking.)
“When I first went there, what stood out the most to me was how helpless I felt,” Ovard told the Deseret News. “So for a while there, I just sat in turmoil, not really knowing what to do.”
It’s hard to find continuity in a place like a homeless shelter. Hundreds of homeless families are packed into a relatively small place. Every family has their own schedule. The Midvale location’s food preparation and storage spaces are limited. Ovard claimed there were known sex offenders staying there — though Michelle Flynn, the Road Home’s executive director of programs, said the Road Home staff checks sex offender registries for every adult housed there.
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Ovard said she was hesitant to share her story on camera, not just because of the homelessness but also because of her past with substance abuse. She said she’s unsure how viewers will judge her. This component of homelessness, especially with homeless families, gets overlooked, she said. And that’s why she decided to make her story public.
“People say you should be strong enough to want better for your kids,” Ovard said. “But sometimes you get so discouraged that you think, ‘Why did I have children if I was just going to have them suffer through being homeless with me?’ You get down on yourself.”
When it’s not just a homeless person, but also a homeless family, problems tend to pile up far more quickly, Shaum said. If a family has no home, for example, they’re less likely to have childcare resources, which make it difficult for parents to find work, which makes it impossible to pay rent.
“People can’t afford housing; you’ve got the living wage issues and childcare issues and transportation issues and all these setbacks,” Shaum said.
“How can you expect somebody to make good decisions if they don’t have medications for their mental health issues?” she continued. “So with ‘housing first,’ that whole model sort of fell apart because there is no money thrown toward treatment and mental health.”
Kathleen French, one of the mothers profiled in “A Home of Their Own,” is one of the Road Home’s success stories but said things could have gone a lot more smoothly for she and her family. She first came to the Road Home after being a few hundred dollars short on rent, and spent 10 months at the shelter working her way through its rapid rehousing program. She wishes local organizations could have spotted her the money for that single month instead of spending considerably more money and resources to house her family for almost a year.
“I’m not saying it should be a revolving door, where anyone can just come in and get money,” she said. “But the situation could have been way different for us.”
Like Ovard and Shaum, French said the shelter needs more mental health resources.
“(Many) of the things that have led (those at the shelter) to homelessness are beyond their control,” she said. “It’s so much more complex than people begging on the street for money.”
According to Flynn, the central issue remains affordable housing. The housing issue can be complex — there are unreliable landlords, discriminatory contracts and any number of hang-ups — but Flynn said housing costs are the primary issue. If more affordable housing is built in Salt Lake County, the shelter’s shortcomings will minimize.
“The families have complex needs,” Flynn said. “And we really need to look at the services we’re providing and where the gaps are.”
“A Home of Their Own” airs Monday, Feb. 26, at 8 and 9:30 p.m., and March 2 at 12:30 a.m.