The Miller family, which owns more than 60 car dealerships and the National Basketball Association’s Utah Jazz, will match up to $10 million in donations for programs and services at three new homeless shelters in Salt Lake County.
“We can‘t afford to turn our back on the homeless and those who are less fortunate,” Larry H. Miller Companies owner Gail Miller said at Thursday’s announcement. Choking up as she came to the next thought, she said: ”We cannot afford to sacrifice the future of the children affected by homelessness. We must give them hope.”
The three new shelters are expected to come online by July 2019 — when the downtown Salt Lake City shelter at 210 S. Rio Grande St. would close — and provide comprehensive, all-day services that would more effectively connect homeless people with jobs, treatment and housing.
Kathy Bray, president and CEO of Volunteers of America Utah, said Thursday that such services can come in all shapes and sizes.
She saw staff tend to a young man’s blistering feet recently at the VOA’s Homeless Youth Resource Center, 888 S. 400 West, where Thursday’s announcement was made. He hadn’t been able to find a 12½ among donated shoes, so they took him to buy a new pair at Walmart. He can now search for a job without pain, she said.
Other problems are more complicated. When Bray was lead case manager at the VOA’s Murray resource center for women and women with children — since closed but expected to reopen — they served a woman who had lost her job, lost her relationship with her husband and lost her permanent housing. She was living in a bus and injecting heroin every day.
The story had a familiar beginning: The woman had become hooked after being prescribed pain pills for a medical condition. Thanks to the services she received, Bray said, it had a memorable end. She was able to visit her children, clean up and work at the VOA facility, baking bread for the women’s lunches.
The Miller family’s generosity is ”going to change lives,” Bray said.
Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams described Gail Miller as being ”constant as the North Star” in her dedication to Utah’s homeless, having most prominently served as co-chairwoman of Salt Lake City’s homeless shelter siting committee.
Miller said that when she was tapped by former Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker for that role, ”I agreed with the understanding that I would not just be a figurehead, that I would be able to do some of the work.”
“Believe me,” she added, ”it was a lot of work.”
Miller said Thursday that she has a nephew who is homeless and addicted to drugs. She has tried to help him, she said, but ”he needs somebody to take ahold and say, ’Come on, here’s a program you can get into that we can get you back on your feet.’”
McAdams recalled that, early after his creation of the county’s committee on homeless services in early 2015, Miller came to him and said, ”Ben, I want to help make a difference here, and I want it to be meaningful.”
She’d given $1 million already, McAdams said, but she told him, ”I want to give a lot more.”
“And then she turned to me and she said, ‘Where can I get my parking validated?’” he recalled, laughing. ”I thought that was Gail Miller to a ‘T’ — she’s generous and kind, but wants to make sure that every penny is used to the ultimate benefit of people in need.”
The Miller family’s donation won’t go toward the estimated $45 million needed to build the three new structures, or the two-year shelter-area law enforcement effort that began in earnest Monday, dubbed Operation Rio Grande.
“I think there are a lot of people that can help with the bricks and mortar, who understand that part. We have to have that,” Miller said. “But we can‘t just have a building that sits there. It’s got to have a heart. It’s got to have the things inside that make it work.”
Salt Lake City businessman Pat King late last year donated $4 million to build a new women’s shelter in Salt Lake City, while Utah’s Legislature has appropriated $27 million over three years toward the future shelters.
Donations toward services — matched by the Millers dollar for dollar — can be made to the shelters’ owner, Shelter the Homeless, at www.homelessutah.org.
The nonprofit’s president, Zions Bancorp. CEO Harris Simmons, said he hopes the Miller family’s donation prompts ”every individual, every family in this valley ... to have a conversation about how we can make a difference.”
Simmons said the nonprofit hopes to use the Miller family’s donation as an endowment that would provide services in perpetuity.