Utah man battles homelessness by serving up oatmeal and handshakes

Oct 4, 2023, 7:43 PM | Updated: 8:24 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — Most of us have been there: Passing by someone who’s homeless, not sure if we’re supposed to look, or if we should turn our heads. But if you ask one man from Bountiful, looking may be the most important part of what he does.

On the block just next to the Rio Grande building, it can be easy to judge. And sneaking a quick glance before averting your eyes may seem like the most appropriate thing to do.

People sit on the curbs. A few tents line the sidewalk. One person lays on a bare mattress. But Bruce Morrison looks closely, and may not see the same thing others do.

“Did they make some bad decisions?” he asked. “Yes. Decisions that led them to be on the streets? Yes. I’ve made bad decisions. Decisions I regret. Doesn’t make me better than them.”

On a Saturday morning, Morrison drives his pickup truck right down the block, and parks in the middle of the street. He and some friends unload some plastic tables, then drop large insulated containers on top.

“We’ve got sandwiches, oatmeal, and hot drink,” he shouts, before directing those nearby to a container of hot water for those who’d like to wash their hands.

It’s easy to judge Bruce, too — some may think he works for some sort of homeless outreach service. But the truth is, he’s just a regular guy with a job running an assisted living center.

A regular guy who came here four years ago to serve Thanksgiving dinner, and was absolutely terrified.

“We didn’t know if it was going to be violent, people angry with us,” Morrison said.

But the response he received is what’s brought him back, week after week.

“I feel safe here,” Morrison said. “I feel protected.”

He goes on to explain that he’s formed friendships with many of those he serves, and they’ve assured him he’ll always be safe and welcomed.

And you might want to judge those helping him, too. Stephanie Neider fills up cups with hot coffee — she doesn’t have a job helping the homeless either. She’s just someone who works for Morrison.

Down on the end, scooping up oatmeal, is Florencio Martinez. He runs his own construction business. And the reason they’re both here is because they’ve both been here.

Both once battled homelessness themselves.

“I lived underneath 400 South,” Martinez said. “Slept underneath the bridge with a half gallon of whiskey or vodka a day. What you see out here was me. Ten, nine years ago.”

“You lose your husband, your house, your job, your everything, kind of end up on the street,” Nieder said.

“That tells you that every single person still matters, because they can change,” Morrison said.

But change isn’t easy. Change can’t just be bought with a cup of oatmeal. But for those serving it up, change can come —just by looking.

“My smiling face helps them,” Neider said.

“They lack self-confidence,” Morrison said. “And a lot of times, they got it from their upbringing. I think if we were able to fix self-confidence, you wouldn’t have a real homeless problem.”

Morrison believes his actions can go far beyond just spooning up some breakfast — which is why he does a lot more than just serving food.

He walks up to one tent, crouches down and asks a man if he’d like some oatmeal, then asks about his dog. He greets another, and asks how he slept last night. Neider and Martinez walk to the end of the block, checking to make sure no one missed out on the meal.

On a block like this one, judging is easy.

But if you ask Bruce Morrison, the most important thing he can do is look past the hardships they can’t hide, and simply see people.

“More than feeding them food, letting them know that they’re loved,” he said. “Let them know that they matter.”

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Utah man battles homelessness by serving up oatmeal and handshakes