SALT LAKE CITY – Advocacy groups worked around the clock on Friday organizing an “overnight movie night” to get more people off the streets amid cold temperatures that started on Thursday and were expected to continue into the weekend.
There may never be a comfortable or safe time of year to spend the night on the streets. But on bitter nights like the one we’re experiencing this week, the roads are particularly uncomfortable and dangerous.
Homelessness advocacy groups told KSL they were aware of at least three people who had died on the streets this week due to the cold temperatures.
“Biting cold. Misery,” said David Weathers, who said he’s lived on the streets off and on for the past 10 years.
“Fear because I don’t know if I’ll make it through the night because of the cold.”
Weathers stayed on a block covered by people huddled on the sidewalk for warmth. A few people had even made small fires on the sidewalk to try and keep warm. But on Friday, many like Weathers were also given a chance to get off the road.
“I really sympathize with this population. Homelessness is a psychological crisis,” said Kseniya Kniazeva.
Kniazeva knows what it’s like to be homeless. Now, as Executive Director of the Nomad Alliance, she works to improve the lives of people on the street, which is why she jumped at the opportunity to help bring them in when it matters most.
The idea came from Wendy Garvin with Unsheltered Utah. As temperatures dropped on Thursday, Garvin said she reached out to Salt Lake City.
“What are we going to do? These temperatures are deadly,” she recalls asking. “We just want them to survive.”
Garvin eventually took matters into his own hands and called First United Methodist Church to see if they could use their facility that evening.
Pastor AJ Bush said when she received the call, “I really felt like this was an opportunity to be an angel for the church.”
“Our mission here in the Church is to turn closed doors into open tables. This was a literal way to open our doors and let people in, get off the streets, be warm, be safe and know they have a place they belong.”
Other organizations like Nomad Alliance and Our Unsheltered Relatives (OUR’s) also jumped on board and within hours were setting up a movie night — not a church shelter — but what they call a nighttime movie night.
Kniazeva said many homeless people need somewhere other than shelter because they have pets or have been detained or experienced violence or theft in shelters.
By 8 p.m. on Thursday evening, they were ready to receive the people in the church. 36 people came. Some even went and picked them up. They expected that number to rise to 75 people by Friday night.
“This is a miracle that happened in just a few hours to give them that other option and I know we saved lives last night,” Kniazeva said.
“Do what you can, where you can, when you can. And I think that’s just something we can do,” said Carl Moore of OUR’s. “This is really to help people. Helping people survive.”
Inside the church, the people who came were offered drinks, snacks, a place to sit, films to watch, and most importantly, a place to escape the cold.
“It’s really helpful. Really, really a blessing,” Weathers said.
The First United Methodist Church in Salt Lake City opens its doors from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights when temperatures are expected to be at their coldest.