Homeless in the hills: Park City man fought to survive the winter | ParkRecord.com

Homeless in the hills: Park City man fought to survive the winter

He lived an existence of uncertainty and is now settling into a new life

by Jay Hamburger
THE PARK RECORD

Mark Sinkiewicz arrived in Park City from Connecticut seven years ago, finding seasonal employment that attracts so many others to the area with hopes of working and playing in the mountains.

For most of his time in Park City, he worked at a mountain resort in the winter operating lifts and, in the summer, joined a landscaping crew at a golf course. He lived in employer-provided housing, a benefit that few companies in Park City offer in the most expensive real estate market in the state.

Last fall, though, his heart began to fail. He was "drop-dead ill" at one point, Sinkiewicz, who is 56, said. The condition forced him to stop working and, as a result, he could no longer be offered housing for the winter.

In early November, just as the severe winter of 2016-2017 approached, he moved out of the housing and stepped into an existence of uncertainty that few people in Park City experience. He was homeless in a community that lacks the resources for those living on the streets that metropolitan communities offer. As the people of Park City and skiers from across the world played in the phenomenal snow conditions, Sinkiewicz fought to survive in the outdoors. He needed to find places to sleep each night, a spot to bathe and somewhere for meals.

"I don't want to be like this . . . I'd rather watch "The Price is Right" in the morning, shower, have a bite to eat," he said, adding, "You just want to look like a normal person, and you want to be clean. I don't like being dirty."

Sinkiewicz would ride the fare-free Park City buses in the daytime scouting for locations where he could spend that night. On some nights, he would pick a strand of evergreen trees off Payday Drive in Thaynes Canyon. He stayed a few nights in a Prospector backyard as well.

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Sinkiewicz did not have a tent, only a sleeping bag, a plastic tarp and an insulating pad. When it rained or snowed, he took the sleeping bag to a laundromat dryer. On nights he stayed in the strand of evergreens, folks passed him unaware he was there.

"I could see people walking by. I could see everything. Nobody ever saw me," he said.

Sinkiewicz said he lived outside in Park City from Nov. 1 until Dec. 5 before staying with friends in Prospector, moving briefly to Colorado and then returning to Park City. He needed to move outdoors again for the first half of February and then for a few weeks in the spring as he lost places to stay.

He spent hours inside the Park City Library using public computers or at City Park to pass the days. He would shower for a few dollars at the Park City Municipal Athletic & Recreation Center. He went to the food pantry at the Christian Center of Park City for help with meals. Sinkiewicz spent two nights under a tree outside the Christian Center, a not-for-profit organization that is one of the leading providers of assistance for the less fortunate in Park City.

"You try not to appear homeless. You stash your backpack with your sleeping bag under the tree," Sinkiewicz said, adding, "People don't like homeless people."

Homeless on hillsides

Park City in the skiing era has never been a place that draws significant numbers of homeless people. It is perhaps an even harder community for a homeless person than a metropolitan area like Salt Lake City. There is no shelter for people without housing in Park City or surrounding Summit County. Living in the outdoors would be extraordinarily difficult in the winter as the nighttime temperatures fall below the freezing mark early in the season and the several hundred inches of snow typically start to pile up by the middle of fall.

Sinkiewicz, a Little Cottonwood Canyon resident for 30 years before moving to Connecticut, said there were four or five others who were homeless and camping in Park City last winter. The Christian Center of Park City in a January count found eight people considered to be homeless along the S.R. 224 corridor between the city limits and Kimball Junction, according to Pete Stoughton, the organization's director of programs. He said the Christian Center serves an average of 10 people per week who are either temporarily homeless or on the verge of homelessness.

The numbers increase in the summer, when there is a "huge influx of transients who will make Park City their home for a month or two," Stoughton said. Some of them want to be in Park City rather than remaining in Salt Lake City, where drugs and violence among the homeless are more common than they are in Park City, he said.

A Utah Department of Workforce Services report detailing the homeless population in Summit County found 17 people in January of 2017, down from the 27 found in the same month in 2016. Of the 27 found in 2016, nine were victims of domestic violence while one was a veteran. None of them were considered to be chronically homeless and no unaccompanied youths were found. A detailed breakdown of the 17 found in January of 2017 was not available. The report is compiled from numbers provided by shelters and data collected by volunteers who survey people found in places like tents, parks and vehicles.

The Park City Police Department occasionally receives reports of encampments on hillsides, sometimes off the Rail Trail and other times at higher elevations. Police officers tend to ask people to leave if they are found. There have also been homeless people discovered in public facilities like the Old Town transit center.

The police between last fall and the spring responded to a string of cases involving encampments or homeless people. The area close to the Rail Trail as it passes through Prospector has been a focus. In one of the cases, in October, someone discovered a small fire off the Rail Trail that investigators said could have been a campfire since makeshift bedding was found nearby. Another case that month involved a person, described as a vagrant, sleeping in a building stairwell on Prospector Avenue. Just after New Year's, meanwhile, a man took up temporary quarters in the transit center in Old Town during the frigid overnight hours. The man, homeless, was sleeping on a bench. The officers on duty at the time decided to let the man stay for the night, indicating there was concern for his safety had he been ordered outside and into the cold.

The Police Department by early May had received reports of approximately 10 encampments. The police have offered to transport the people found at the encampments to a homeless shelter in Salt Lake City. None of them agreed to relocate. In some of the cases the police did not find anyone. It was not clear whether any of the reports were filed by people who spotted Sinkiewicz.

"I don't think many people realize how easy it is to end up in that situation," said Ed Clouse, a police officer who has responded to some of the homeless reports, adding, "all of a sudden you don't have a job."

'A more comfortable feeling'

The Police Department first encountered Sinkiewicz after one of his friends contacted the authorities early last fall requesting an officer check on his welfare, even before he was homeless. His condition by the middle of fall was deteriorating as his heart problem persisted. Police officers determined they needed to intervene. He was taken to a hospital for treatment in the days before he ended up without a place to live.

Sinkiewicz remained in contact with the Police Department, particularly with Clouse, after the hospital stay and as his housing situation remained precarious. The authorities understood he would need assistance. The Police Department worked with the Christian Center and the People's Health Clinic, a Park City-based not-for-profit organization that aids those without health insurance, to prepare arrangements for Sinkiewicz.

He received help filling out the application form to receive Social Security disability benefits. The benefits were approved, providing enough money every month to cover his basic needs. Help with food was provided through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program hunger-fighting benefit, but Sinkiewicz said he will lose eligibility based on the Social Security benefits.

And, critically, there was a unit available in the Richer Place Apartments, a work force or otherwise restricted housing development at Kimball Junction. He moved into an apartment in early June, something that appeared in doubt even at Richer Place Apartments at one point since Sinkiewicz is not employed.

The availability in Richer Place Apartments at the moment Sinkiewicz needed a place was fortuitous. The Park City housing market – rentals and for-sale units – can be brutal on people on government assistance like Sinkiewicz or those working in the many low-wage jobs available in Park City's tourism-heavy economy.

"This year, for the first time, I'm hearing things – people sleeping in the bus stations, camping. It's becoming a problem we didn't have before," Scott Loomis, the executive director of the not-for-profit Mountainlands Community Housing Trust, said.

He said the homeless typically opt for places like Salt Lake City where there is broader assistance available. Mountainlands Community Housing Trust offers help for people temporarily without a place to stay through a transitional housing program. The program typically serves victims of domestic violence, people who have been evicted from their places, those who have lost a dwelling through foreclosure or people suffering health problems.

The transitional housing program, however, was cut back sharply as a result of federal funding priorities. Mountainlands Community Housing Trust once had 10 units in the program. A change in priorities by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to focus efforts on the chronically homeless led to the elimination of funding for the local transitional housing program, Loomis said. Mountainlands Community Housing Trust has since raised enough money on its own to secure seven units. The organization, though, must collect 30 percent of a person's monthly income in a security deposit, up from the 10 percent required when the program received federal funds. The typical rent runs between $300 and $400 per month. Mountainlands Community Housing Trust heavily subsidizes the transitional housing through fundraising.

Sinkiewicz is settling into his unit at Richer Place Apartments, a place that is not a part of the transitional housing program and is available to a wider range of people. The apartment offers the typical amenities for a project for the work force. For Sinkiewicz, the apartment provides relief from the worries that come with sleeping outdoors.

"It's just wonderful to have a roof over my head, and don't have to worry when I go to sleep. I won't be woken up by a raccoon. There was always just a little bit of fear," he said, adding, "I'm not a renegade, kind of, now. It's a more comfortable feeling being alive."