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West Valley City Journal

A profile in unhoused courage

Feb 06, 2023 03:20PM ● By Mimi Darley Dutton

Advocates for the homeless argue that housing should be a right rather than a privilege. Lawrence Horman has been sharing his lived experience as an unhoused person in hopes of being part of the solution. “Those who are in the situation might have something to contribute to better steer solutions,” he told Draper’s city council. (Courtesy Lawrence Horman)

He’s polite, articulate and quick with a slew of clean jokes. He has a commercial driver’s license and currently works in security. He’s a “Star Trek” fan, a dad, and a dog and cat owner. His name is Lawrence Horman, and he’s homeless (depending on your perspective). 

“I never intended to be a spokesperson or a poster boy for the homeless, but somebody has to speak up and advocate...I’ve been put in a unique position that allows me to do what most homeless can’t do for themselves,” he said. 

Horman has been traveling to city council meetings throughout Salt Lake County to give insight into the plight of people in his predicament and to offer ideas for potential solutions.  “Things have changed for the homeless, some for the better, some for the worse. I give a perspective of lived experience.”

Horman said people in the homeless community and their advocates prefer the term unhoused, but he’s OK using the term homeless since it’s most familiar.

He was there in 2017 when a public meeting was held about Draper being a potential homeless shelter location. He was driving home from work that evening and heard a radio report that the meeting was happening at Draper Park Middle School. “I found out it was still going on so I went there and I stood up to speak up for the homeless,” he said. 

It was intended to be an open house with then Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, who had been tasked by the legislature with finding a shelter location within a short amount of time, and Draper Mayor Troy Walker. “It turned into a town hall where the mayors were virtually forced onto the stage, visibly uncomfortable, and people lined up to voice their opinions from microphones.  Everyone who said anything positive about the resource centers was booed, hissed and sworn at. I was so scared I was shaking. Me and one other person who are homeless got up to advocate for the homeless. When I got up, I said ‘I am homeless, will you let me speak?’ Then they realized they’d been yelling about people they didn’t even know were in the room. They figured it was all housed people, you could tell by their reaction,” he said. 

Since that time, Horman has tried to brainstorm solutions. One of his main points to those who will listen is, “People are people no matter what their living situation. Sometimes homeless people are manipulative, sometimes they aren’t, just like everybody else.” He feels strongly that the rates of drug addiction, mental illness and criminal activity are roughly the same percentage among the housed as the unhoused. “The significant difference between the housed and unhoused in those regards is that the unhoused don’t have walls to hide behind for those activities. The thing that most people don’t get is the people not participating in those activities among the unhoused are unseen because they know how to stay out of view while those who are having a mental health issue and participating in criminal activity like drugs are seen because they have no place to hide.” 

He keeps a binder with copies of the letters he sent about five years ago to mayors of each of the cities within Salt Lake County, only two of whom replied in any way. The letters offer the idea that cities could pass ordinances allowing property owners, should they choose, to have someone live on their property in a small camper, RV or commercial trailer in exchange for doing maintenance or security work on the property. “This would be an ordinance that would allow the property owner to have inexpensive security on site, and give local law enforcement someone they could count on to help see possible criminal activity that they wouldn’t be afraid to report to police (because it would be a legal arrangement), and give one more homeless person a place to live and be useful while trying to get on their feet as well.” 

Horman runs a Facebook page by the homeless for the homeless which he calls the Deseret Defiant Initiative. “Its purpose is to wake up local cities and make them aware of their part in causing homelessness and to try and get them to actively participate in effectively solving the problem in a positive and more permanent way, and allow those who are homeless to participate in their own transition and recovery from homeless to housed while supporting themselves legally and effectively without any more dependence on government and charitable organizations than is necessary.”

Horman himself gets by on social security disability and help from family and his church. He says that you can’t just provide housing for the homeless, but that continuing services such as health care, transportation, help with bill paying, etc. must be part of the equation.

“It won’t matter how many people you put in a house unless you have continuing support. And the best way to get it right isn’t to explain how solving homelessness will benefit the homeless, but how it will benefit the community and those who are already housed,” he said. 

Horman suggests a less expensive and more permanent solution would be putting the unhoused into permanent housing (not shelters), even something like an authorized campground. “Some housed people object, but the homeless can and do it. A tent is a house if all you have is the alcove of a building, an alcove is a home if all you have is a tree, a tree is a home if all you have is the sidewalk. All you want is a place to sleep, get cleaned up, eat in peace and be able to come back to after work the next day.” Horman envisions an ordinance that would allow for a public or private program, or a combination thereof. He suggests that the properties could be reviewed and regulated by health inspectors and would stay open or close according to local health ordinances and requirements as happens with restaurants and hotels.

Horman has strong feelings against “sweeps” such as what has been done by law enforcement in Salt Lake City. “It’s money wasted. The homeless simply find another camp, another space, until they’re swept again. It’s better that they don’t have to move their tent every couple days or every couple weeks. By not giving people a safe, stable place to be, by “sweeping” them, you’re criminalizing homelessness.”  He explained that by having a legal arrangement, such as an authorized campground, people in the homeless community would be inclined to work with law enforcement rather than being afraid to call them for fear of losing where they’re living.

He expressed frustration with programs designed to help the homeless, saying that often you “graduate” from one but you don’t quite qualify for another, resulting in huge gaps in the bureaucracy of those programs. “The official programs create as many barriers as they resolve.” Horman said he’s gotten the most help from his family and his church. 

What scares him most? “There’s no way anyone who’s homeless doesn’t sometimes find themselves terrified. There’s always a fear, a chance that someone in government or a private property owner will decide they’re done letting you be where you are and you lose what you’ve got.” 

He recognizes that he’s luckier than most in that he has shelter in a commercial trailer he owns that is parked on private property with permission from the landowner.  But he doesn’t have electricity or running water. “By comparison to most people who are on the street homeless, I live in a palace,” he said.

Horman said it’s challenging to hold a job while homeless. “Some unhoused keep up appearances…go to a job and talk with co-workers, but they have to be careful…the moment you bring it up…you can’t talk about it (homelessness) like it’s an everyday thing.”

What are his hopes for the future? That his adult daughter would have permanent housing which she doesn’t at the present. And that the trailer he occupies could be converted to be “more like an RV style in a more permanent fashion.” 

Who inspires him in his advocacy for the homeless? First, former Salt Lake County Mayor McAdams. “Without being asked or forced into it, or for the sake of getting glory, he went incognito on the street for three days, spent a couple nights in a shelter and a night or two on the street to see what it would be like to be homeless. He learned why people are living on the street rather than being in the shelters because they don’t feel safe in the shelters. We need to do better.” Second, a California man named Mark Horvath who is on YouTube and Facebook and runs a website called Invisible People. “He was working in the media when he got addicted to drugs. He lost everything. He pulled himself out of it, not without help, and then he used his media skills to help other people. He interviews people who are homeless. He puts a real human face on it.” 

Horman summed it up in this way: “There’s one race, the human race, and we all deserve dignity and respect…we all have a right to reasonable housing, and necessities like shelter, clothing, food, personal hygiene and the chance to work and provide for ourselves which you don’t get if you’re being rousted every night from place to place. There has to be a human face to the problem before it’s resolved.”