‘I didn’t feel safe’: Mayor Ben McAdams describes secret nights on street, in shelter

SALT LAKE CITY — For four months, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams has kept a secret.

He’s shared it with perhaps a handful of people in political circles — but kept it out of headlines, hoping to avoid the perception, he said, of a “publicity stunt in the face of human suffering.”

Back in March, just days before he was due by state law to select a third site for a new homeless resource center — a decision he knew would anger thousands of his constituents, regardless of his choice — McAdams left work on a Friday with no money or ID and walked to Salt Lake City’s most troubled neighborhood.

Dressed in jeans, sneakers and a hoodie, the county mayor spent three days and two nights walking and sleeping among the homeless and drug-addicted in Salt Lake City’s Rio Grande neighborhood.

One night on the street. One night in the shelter.

His experience was “shocking” on multiple levels, he said. And while he by no means meant his experience to be an “expose” on the Road Home shelter, an important stakeholder in homeless services reform, his stay did shed light on some troubling realities within the 1,062-bed shelter, including:

• Blatant use of drugs inside the men’s dorms, including his bunkmate injecting drugs into his arm — though he declined to discuss details about that encounter with the Deseret News.

• He smelled what he assumed was smoke from drugs “all night long.”

• He witnessed violence — a fight between two men in the dorms, during which a man was dragged off of his bunk and hit his head on the concrete floor.

• He didn’t feel safe — and could see why someone would take their chances on the streets in 40-degree rainy weather rather than spend a night in the downtown shelter.

The county mayor has kept his experience private for months. But after the Deseret News learned of the overnight stays from a source and requested an interview, McAdams eventually — reluctantly — agreed to discuss it this week with the Deseret News and Salt Lake Tribune.

His reasoning for keeping it quiet? He was worried it would appear as a “cheap stunt” to the press and public.

“I was concerned that it not look…

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