There’s a certain comfort in our letters section here at City Weekly. The section reflects a feeling of ownership by the writers. It’s their page, mirroring back their thoughts—to themselves and to the rest of the readers.
On a good day, a letter (just like a good cover story or review) hits a nerve. It makes people think a little harder. Two weeks ago, one of our regular letter writers, a fellow I’ve never met named Dwight J. Barrett, did just that.
As he often does, Barrett wrote us apropos of nothing that had appeared in the paper. It seems a proposal politicians float now and again had piqued his curiosity: an ordinance to crack down on panhandling in downtown Salt Lake City. Dave Buhler raised the issue in his recent run for mayor. He suggested the city license panhandlers. Treat them like any other sidewalk vendor or business, he said. Needless to say, Buhler’s proposal never got legs. He lost in November to Ralph Becker.
Still, all of this apparently got letter writer Barrett thinking, and he sent us this letter, published in the Nov. 29 issue:
“I propose that, in the name of Elizabeth Smart, the Salt Lake City Council outlaw begging and loitering and panhandling and sleeping within Salt Lake City proper.
“Salt Lake City citizens must remember that it was a beggar and panhandler who is accused of kidnapping Elizabeth Smart. I remember seeing the despicable human being almost every day on South Temple.
“I, for one, don’t want to take any more chances of having someone else kidnapped. Having one person kidnapped is enough.
“I also am one man who is tired of having to deal with beggars, panhandlers and scum that sleep downtown. I would like to see Salt Lake City eliminate such behavior. Let’s do one for Elizabeth Smart. Lets name the city ordinance the Elizabeth Smart ordinance.”
For some reason, Barrett’s letter has generated a healthy rumble among readers and others I run into in my daily life. Maybe it’s the time of year. On at least three occasions this month, someone I’ve run into has mentioned the spirit of that letter. One person I know called it “horribly mean-spirited.” A writer posting on SLWeekly.com called Barrett a bigot.
Of all the comments I’ve heard or read, though, the rumpled, handwritten letter I found in my office mailbox a few days after Barrett’s letter ran means the most to me. A letter writer left it with our world-class receptionist, Chelsie Booker, and then disappeared.
This happens fairly often here. It’s a perk of the job, actually. We are eminently approachable. We live on the struggling 200 South block of Main Street. While the fervor surrounding “Downtown Rising” mostly goes on three blocks to the north, we’re hanging in here like hardy prisoners of war with Sam Weller’s Zion Bookstore, KUTV 2, TP Gallery, AJ’s Quick Mart and a handful of other tenants.
We know our neighbors. We recognize the people on the street—especially those who live there pretty much permanently. This guy who dropped off the response to Barrett has apparently joined their ranks—at least for now.
He didn’t sign his letter, written on two sheets of stationery with the NASCAR logo and driver Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s signature. Our rules require a name and a contact number or e-mail address for publication in the letters section. But I think you should read this. So I’m exercising editor’s prerogative today and printing it:
“I read Dwight J. Barrett’s letter of holiday cheer and warmth.
“I used to be frightened of this mass of human suffering as they wandered the streets talking to friends only they could see or arguing with enemies of the same ethereal quality. And I also used to hurry past those pleading for spare change, saying, ‘No!’
“Since the first of November, I have found myself a member of this kind and hopeful society of humans. A development company bought the apartment building I lived in and quickly went about evicting everyone. I live on a fixed income well below the cost of even a studio apartment, and it leaves me wondering if I will ever have a place to call home again.
“But these so-called ‘despicable human beings’ made me feel more welcome than my last LDS ward did. They quickly included me as part of their family. They are immediately helpful and supportive, don’t waste time showing newcomers where to go for food, clothing or medical help. They also pray every night before bed and I have yet to hear a complaint.
“The Bible tells us of the poor homeless beggars who were allowed to ‘glean’ the fields for what was kindly left after the harvest. These ‘despicable human beings’ are the mentally ill, the poor and the downtrodden, but if you ask them ‘how are you?’ they’ll tell you ‘right now, dry, warm and fed, can’t ask for better!’
“The Barretts of society should be fighting for an ordinance to help people get affordable housing and to help the mentally ill to be dry, warm and fed.
“These are truly the humble masses that Jesus chose to serve and teach.”