Community, Community Profiles, Connect
Lives in the shadows
A conversation with Kip Yost
Last summer, curious to learn more about Salt Lake’s new homeless resource shelters, I was reading everything I could find on the topic. Since the implementation of Operation Rio Grande, the conversation seemed to lack strong voices of people who perceived that spending money on police and jail expansions aren’t resolving the problems but rather making those problems more difficult. I wished I could speak with someone who actually lived through homelessness and could speak from experience.
Then, in the comments section, I read a post from Kip Yost who wrote that funding to hire more police officers was a waste of money since they don’t provide housing assistance, medical or psychiatric care or counseling. Intrigued, I looked into other comments and the articles he had left them. Kip had spent seven months in The Road Home and had written a few commentaries for the Salt Lake Tribune about this same issue. His reasoning and comments resonated with me. He was straightforward about having lived through the shelter system and appeared to understand the motivations behind politicians. It was time to reach out to him and start a conversation. I sent him an email.
Before long, I received a reply, and after a few email exchanges we met in person on a sunny afternoon at the library. Almost instantly our conversation became engaging. He told me he wound up homeless after losing his job at Dell, and struggled to find work while living with undiagnosed autism. I told him that I was a prison abolitionist and wanted to explore alternatives to policing that could help people in their specific situations, like his, that would actually help people find housing and the support they need. Since he had navigated through the system himself, I wanted to know about his ideas for resolving the issue of homelessness in Salt Lake that wouldn’t rely on the force of police.
We spoke a lot about the ways politicians and other people who are external to the problem are trying to address the issue, but are not actually engaging with the folks who are experiencing life on the streets, in the shelter, or through transitional housing.
Politicians and board members can remove themselves from the everyday reality of what it’s like to lose support or a social safety net. Decisions are left up to their discretion, even though they do not have to face the consequences of their choices. At the end of their short meetings at a shelter, they can physically escape that environment and enter the comfort of their own world. As they try to fall asleep, they’re not worrying about how they’ll make it through the next day.
Yost calls the situations we see playing out today “an amazing tragedy,” and I have to agree. With the Road Home now closed and temperatures dropping, it’s hard to feel optimistic about how people experiencing homelessness will survive. Criminalizing homelessness and militarizing the approach toward it does not resolve the issues of poverty, drug use or public safety, but instead exacerbates them.
Using the language of battle or war, like Operation Rio Grande does, is one way to “other” an entire demographic of humans who face incredible barriers to leaving their lives on the streets. A months-long waitlist for affordable housing far surpasses the supply. And for those of us who enjoy being housed, many of us are only one emergency or unforeseen circumstance away from losing it. We are living in precarious times.
While Kip’s experience in the shelter was relatively short in comparison to others who experience homelessness, he became a keen observer into the ways that people struggle with surviving while destitute. After we met, he began to share excerpts of a book he is writing, tentatively titled Cast Upon Shadows. in which he shares his thoughts, conversations and encounters while living in The Road Home.
The portraits are rich and compelling, with each story capturing a momentary glimpse into the complexities of human relationships. Certainly, it gives the reader a degree of understanding that they may not otherwise see portrayed in the media about who lives in a shelter or what circumstances brought them there. Its honesty was astonishing, especially considering the isolation many face when experiencing life without a home.
Especially in these cold months, I challenge you to engage with people on the streets and in the shelters, especially if you work in a political or nonprofit organization. Folks who experience homelessness deserve the dignity of participating in the decision-making process of their own lives. Members of our community deserve freedom and safety, no matter what their housing status may be.
When I was younger, I used to visit ghost towns as often as I got the chance. The town that my great-great grandfather founded, Yost, Utah, is a ghost town. During the Pony Express years, Yost was in fact the biggest town in Utah. My father was the last Yost born in Yost, and as I am my father’s oldest son, and the last person to bear my father’s name.
When in these old ghost towns, I always looked for an old house, rather than just any old building. I would wander through the abandoned rooms touching the old walls and wondering when they last gave shelter to a laughing child.
When was the last holiday dinner?
When was the last “I love you” ever spoken?
And what were the last occupants thinking and feeling as they closed the doors for the very last time? Did they engage the locks? Were tears shed? Did they think that, someday perhaps, they would be back?
Sometimes I look at the homeless faces that surround me and realize that there are ghost towns at the heart of every big city in America. Old greying buildings and dirty streets full of ghost hearts and lost souls who are poorly sheltered from the encroaching memories of lives once lived. Lives lived before the ravages of addiction, lives lived before the devastation of abject poverty, abandonment, loneliness and loss.
Lives where they once were or once loved a laughing child, lives where they regularly heard or said “I love you.”
Lives where the faces familiar to them, for whatever reason, finally closed the doors that they used to walk through. Sometimes the locks were engaged behind them as they walked away, sometimes there were tears shed, and sometimes, still today, sometimes they still believe that they will go back.
Prologue to Cast Upon Shadows, by Kip Yost (a work in progress)
Brinley Froelich is a writer, yoga instructor and embroidery artist. She is the co-founder of Decarcerate Utah.