August 11, 2017

What a Utah mayor learned from living as a homeless man for two nights

Three inspiring stories of innovation and ingenuity across America

Salt Lake County, Utah, Mayor Ben McAdams recently spent two nights living among the homeless population in his community. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Every Friday, The Renewal Project shares three stories from around the country that highlight the innovative solutions individuals and organizations are creating in their communities. Want to share a story from your hometown? Email us at

Walking a mile in someone else’s shoes: Without any announcement or press conference, a Utah mayor quietly left his office one Friday afternoon in March with no money or ID and spent the next two nights living on the streets. Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams told the Deseret News, which broke the story this week, that he wanted to deepen his understanding of the homeless issue in his community before deciding where to house a third homeless resource center in his county. According to the story, the mayor was reluctant to share his experience with the press, saying he didn’t want it to look like “a publicity stunt in the face of human suffering.” McAdams spent one night in a shelter and one on the street, feeling at times unsafe, and witnessing violence and drug use. The mayor said his experience confirms his belief that state and civic leaders must act to help solve this challenge. “Doing nothing is not an option, even if it’s the end of me politically,” he told the paper.

Detroit artist Tyree Guyton founded the Heidelberg Project, an art instillation that started on the street where he grew up, in 1986. Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Engaging community through art: Public art projects have a way of bringing communities together, whether it’s by creating a pretty space where neighbors can congregate or by inviting people to take part in its creation. In communities that are in need of revitalization, art can play a role in helping it come back to life. The website NationSwell catalogued six community art projects that are making cities healthier and more vibrant. From a nearly 30-year-old initiative in Detroit that’s engaging residents and creating a cultural hub in the neighborhood, to a light display in Spartanburg, South Carolina, that uses light to promote a healthy police and community relationship. See the full list on NationSwell.

Innovating in southeastern Tennessee: For the past few years, Chattanooga, Tennessee, has been blossoming into a tech- and startup-friendly city. In 2010, it was the first city to provide each of its residents with ultra high-speed broadband, which is 200-times faster than the national average, and two years ago it launched the Innovation District of Chattanooga, a hub for startups and incubators that has restaurants and public spaces that are walkable and accessible. In a speech this week, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke said he wants to encourage more growth and activity in the district, and create new opportunities for underserved residents, especially African Americans. “The best ideas are often born when people with different backgrounds and different ideas come together and learn and discuss with one another,” Berke said.

Margaret Myers

Margaret Myers is the editor of The Renewal Project.