An Intimate Look At Homelessness In Southwest Utah
Southwest Utah is facing a lack of affordable housing — and it’s getting worse. But homelessness there doesn’t always look how you might imagine. Earlier this year, KUER’s Southwest News Bureau reporter David Fuchs told the story of Cory and Skip Stahr and their son Seren, who were living in a trailer in the desert.
Now, RadioWest Films director Kelsie Moore brings their story to life in a new documentary. KUER’s Caroline Ballard spoke with both Fuchs and Moore about their work.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Caroline Ballard: How did you find this story?
David Fuchs: It started by going to this United Way Fundraiser, which was gathering supplies for homeless students in Washington County. So I started reporting on it by going to that event and calling agencies and meeting with people from the school district. But I didn’t really feel like that was getting me anywhere.
One day I just decided to take a break, and got in my car and drove out into some public lands. I went out to an area of undeveloped desert. As I was driving around exploring, I saw a camper trailer sitting out on a bluff and a man outside moving things around, and just decided to approach him and see what his situation was and if he was willing to talk to me.
He had his son with him who was starting school in the Washington County School District for the first time that year. And that very next night, the whole family was going to back-to-school night. That became the basis for my story.
CB: What is the broader picture of housing in St. George, and how does this family fit in?
DF: One of the most important things that I found out while reporting this story was that the number of homeless students in Washington County had actually increased fourfold from 2003, when there were about 200 homeless students, to 2019 when there were over a thousand.
Not all of those students are sleeping in the desert like Seren and his family were. They’re doubled up, living with other families or in other kinds of situations, and that's because St. George is one of the fastest growing areas in the country.
As the area has grown, rents have gone up and wages have pretty much stayed the same since 1980. There have been a lot more houses added to the housing stock, but most of those houses are at the high end of the market. So it creates a really intense demand on lower-priced rental options.
CB: Kelsie, what was your reaction to David's story, hearing about this family living in the desert with a small child?
Kelsie Moore: He took two photos for this story. And it was when I saw those photos that I knew that perhaps there was something more that I wanted to explore.
And I think what we wanted to do with the documentary was to even go into a deeper dive with this particular family and really show the nuance of their struggles and the nuance of their poverty.
CB: Is there a scene in the documentary that you think really illustrates the difficulties of being homeless in southwest Utah?
KM: Cory shared during her interview a moment when she couldn't get a library card for her son, and it was simply because they don't have a physical address. She had a lot of stories like that, where it's just based on not having a physical address, which was surprising to me. I hadn't even thought about things like this before.
CB: How does this film stand out among your other RadioWest films and other work that you've done?
KM: First of all, it's rare to have such access and vulnerability from people that I film with, and that family really did that. It was really special.
Second, we've created a really cool web page for this, which is something that we haven't done as a collaboration to this extent with the KUER newsroom and with RadioWest.
CB: David, what change has resulted from your radio story?
DF: I think the most immediate change is that parents who also have a son in the same classes as the Stahrs do saw the story, reached out and offered the family a new place to put their trailer where they could have easy access to electricity and water. So the family is no longer living in the desert.
CB: What else is the city of St. George doing to address the housing crunch in southwest Utah?
DF: In August they created the Housing Action Coalition, which is a group that's looking at how to best strategize around creating more attainable housing options in St. George. They recently changed an ordinance that would allow for property owners to add accessory dwelling units like casitas and carriage houses to create more lower-cost rental options throughout the city.
The other big one is this year they broke ground on an affordable housing complex known as Riverwalk Village, which will create 55 affordable housing units within the city limits. There are steps in the right direction, but the city does also acknowledge that there remains a great need.