SALT LAKE CITY — A few days before Thanksgiving, dozens of strangers of all ages met in a colorful Salt Lake warehouse filled to the brim with stacks of blankets, coats, scarves and socks.
"When I think twice about just going outside to take the dogs out or take the garbage out, I think of people that stay all night outside. I don't even know how they do it with all the warm clothes in the world," said volunteer Rebecca Simmons, sorting socks during the annual Warm the Homeless SLC event on Monday.
As the sun set, people bustled through the warehouse of Rico Brand, a Mexican food supplier, preparing the items for donation. Others piled into vans en route to different homeless hubs downtown to distribute the blankets and clothing.
Outside the Salt Lake City Main Library, 18-year-old Josie West received a new army-green jacket, which she promptly pulled on.
She said she has been homeless in the downtown area since she graduated from high school a year and a half ago.
West will soon turn 19 and soon should receive housing. "So that'll be a good birthday present," West explained.
But until then, she said the donations will help. "I'm not shivering and stuff at night. Making sure I'm staying healthy. I'm blessed. I honestly can say that. It was a good surprise that you guys showed up tonight, definitely," she said.
"It's so nice to have a jacket at all. … It's nice to have something."
Many who volunteered have personal connections to homelessness, while others simply wanted to help out.
"My daughter was a heroin addict for four years and was very briefly homeless. And homelessness touches everyone's lives — mental health issues, drug addiction. It's just a small way for us to give back," Lauri Vidal said.
Kim Urbanczyk volunteered in hopes of finding her 15-year-old daughter, who ran away from home. "She's a re-occurring runaway, and she kind of blends in with the homeless people," Urbanczyk said.
"I've been downtown many, many times asking around all the homeless community. And some of them may know my daughter … but they do tell me where I can look for her, and they've been right," Urbanczyk said.
"I still want to help out, whether I find her or not."
For Edward McGraw, the donations mean that people care.
"I got gloves, socks and a beanie. It means that people care about the homeless. And it means that the holidays are a giving time, and love's around," McGraw said.
Bernardo Raimondo, who immigrated from Africa, received a new sport coat and socks.
"This is the best one," he said, motioning to the sport coat. "I'd like to put on a neck tie and white shirt. It supports me in my situation. It's things I didn't have and I'm very happy."
After passing out supplies to people camped on the library grounds, Michael Mangan said, "I don't know how they sleep in the cold."
"One girl was only 13 — 13," he said. The girl told him she was kicked out of her home because she told her parents she was lesbian.
"It really breaks your heart," he said.
Mangan, who volunteered at the event for the second time, said he enjoys "seeing people come together. I think reaching out to these people is just really valuable," he said.
Mangan said he can relate to the experience of homeless people because when he converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Ireland when he was younger, his family disowned him.
"So I hadn't much of a choice but to go on the street," he said. However, Mangan said he was blessed at the time to have a job and to attend school.
Mangan said his experience made him decide "I'm going to reach out and listen."
Through helping others, Mangan says, "some people, their lives can be changed forever. Including ourselves, of course."
Just five years ago, Spencer Nielsen and his bandmates came up with the idea for the annual Warm the Homeless SLC. The first year, they gathered a few hundred blankets, he said.
"We've taken a little bit of flak for it, but we don't care. We are not a 501(c), we're not a charitable organization. We're just like a group of people that started this small service project, and now it's this big event. We've probably outgrown ourselves by like 100 times," Nielsen said.
After they began posting about the event on Facebook, Nielsen has seen the grassroots service project grow exponentially. On Monday, he couldn't even estimate how many blankets and other supplies the group had gathered. He said the items that weren't distributed Monday will go to different homeless shelters and elementary schools.Comment on this story
As the night went on, the piles only seemed to grow as more people crowded into the building.
Nielsen said that he hasn't been able to work in two weeks because the project has consumed his time — but he does it because he wants people to realize that "it's not hard" to offer a hand of help to the homeless.
"Anyone can do it any day of the week, any time. You know, you can help these people. And we're so fearful of them. And so I think deep down our main goal is to give a voice to the people and change that stigma."