For months, the homelessness conversation has centered around proposed shelter sites, and where they don't belong.
Some Utah State University students and their professor decided Thursday — after a contentious public meeting in Draper where residents shouted down a proposed resource center and booed a homeless man — that they wanted to change the narrative.
On Saturday afternoon, the group organized a demonstration at Pioneer Park in Salt Lake City, near homeless people sleeping under trees and not far from The Road Home. The group of about 75, including University of Utah students and others, later marched downtown with signs.
With the Draper meeting as their "catalyst," the USU group wanted to send the message that homeless people are an important part of the community, and there are many Utahns who care about them, said Jess Lucero, a social work professor.
"It breaks my heart that they're shunned," said Tamarra Kemsley, a former Mormon missionary who added that she has several friends who are homeless. She held a sign that read: "Home or no home, we are all equal."
Ami Curtis, a U. social work student who helped the USU students organize the event, said the fear of shelters has been overblown at recent community meetings. The planned "resource center" model will be different than The Road Home, where the homeless population currently is concentrated downtown. The new model should help stop "homelessness before it begins," she said.
Curtis said it was important to realize that "every [Utah] community has a homeless problem," not only the "west side."
A number of homeless, and previously homeless, people attended the event.
Kent Clair, 19, said he became homeless in August. He bounced around on the streets and several temporary housing situations, and eventually found food and other help at the Volunteers of America Homeless Youth Resource Center in Salt Lake City.
The organization helped him get housing last month. He recently started a job at Burger King, a walkable distance from his apartment.
Clair has been following the homeless debate and said he has been discouraged by some "ignorance" on display. He said he was appreciative of the demonstration's organizers, saying it's "a really good idea" to advocate for the homeless voice.
Signs read "Love thy neighbor" and "Support our shelters." Clair held one that declared: "Privilege is when you think something is not a problem because it's not a problem to you personally."
Wendi Guerrero, who spent time homeless last year, spoke to the crowd with her 13-year-old son, Dominik, standing by her side. Guerrero said she lost her job last summer and couldn't afford the rent. They were on the streets.
"Nobody chooses to be hungry, nobody chooses to be cold, nobody chooses to carry everything they own on their back," she told the crowd, adding that becoming homeless injured her psyche and self-esteem.
"People who are homeless are part of our communities," Guerrero said.
The Guerreros got aid at The Road Home, she said later in an interview, and The Salvation Army helped them secure the apartment in Rose Park that they now call home. It just happened to be close to Dominik's school. It has a balcony, and there is a pool nearby.
Guerrero said she has been waiting for the opportunity to speak up about homelessness. She wants to explain what it's like to spend a night in the shelter. She wants to tell people about how it can happen so suddenly.
"I never thought I'd find myself in that position," Guerrero said.