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The number of people experiencing homelessness in the southeastern Utah tourist town of Moab is small but growing.
And Sara Melnicoff, an environmentalist-turned-homeless advocate, is a one-person safety net for many.
Volunteers found 30 people experiencing homelessness in Grand County, from living outdoors to staying with friends or in a domestic violence shelter, during this year’s Point in Time count in January. Eighteen fit the federal government's official homeless definition — up from 12 the year before and a number some advocates say is likely an undercount.
Some have been pushed into homelessness by rising housing costs — like “NewClear” Ned Robinson, a former radio DJ who lost his mobile home and important belongings when the property owner turned the land into an overnight RV park for tourists.
“I have lost so much,” said Robinson, who now lives in his car. Including, he said, “about the only picture of me when I was a toddler in existence.”
Mewborn said he often connects people to Melnicoff when he can tell they aren’t “house free” by choice, like he is. “Any time I run into a guy that’s obviously on the road, I call her and say, ‘Do you know about this guy?’” he said.
Carey Jones, who is now in housing after spending about three decades on and off the streets, credits Melnicoff with saving “a lot of lives out there.”
“She saved my life on two occasions,” he said. “Just got me into rehab. I was poisoned really bad, I was drug addicted and living on the street, almost freezing to death every night, sleeping in the Post Office, sleeping in the laundromats.”
Jim Winder, Moab’s former police chief, said he admires Melnicoff’s passion as she takes on the role of “10 different service providers.” But he also worries that unsheltered people in Moab are dangerously dependent on her.
“She keeps them just on the edge of survival, and that’s not a good situation,” he said. “If Sara goes away, you’re going to have a real problem on your hands.”
Melnicoff said she’s proud of the way the community has worked to aid the unsheltered, including providing “plenty of places people can get food.”
“Even though it’s 50/50 Republican/Democrat, redneck/hippie … people come together when there’s an issue and they help each other,” she said.
But the city’s unsheltered population is “still dealing with the elements,” she said. As booming tourism has made motels and hotels more expensive, she said, the community needs some type of shelter.