homepage logo

Why a group of powerful philanthropists wants to humanize Utah’s homeless issue

Newly launched Project Human Dignity aims to raise awareness — and empathy — for Utah’s homeless. To help, an A-list celebrity photographer came to Salt Lake to capture their stories

By Katie McKellar - Utah News Dispatch | Apr 11, 2024

Courtesy R&R Partners

Victoria Stevens, left, photographs a couple experiencing homelessness at Catholic Community Services’ Weigand Resource Center in Salt Lake City on March 7, 2024.

A powerful group of business leaders that has formed a group dedicated to solving Utah homelessness, called the Utah Impact Partnership, launched its “flagship” initiative over the weekend, meant to put a face to Utah’s homeless issues.

It’s called Project Human Dignity — a campaign featuring stark, black-and-white portraits of people experiencing homelessness, and videos challenging Utahns to think of Utah’s homeless as grandfathers, sisters, veterans who served with honor, loving couples, neighbors, and survivors of trauma.

“What if we thought of them,” one of Project Human Dignity’s first televised clips states, “as deserving of our empathy … of our help … of human dignity.”

The project is part of a multi-year, multimillion-dollar effort by Utah Impact Partnership to enhance homeless services. Project Human Dignity’s videos are airing as public service announcements by stations that offer it.

In coming months, the campaign is slated to release more photographs and clips of documentary-style interviews of people experiencing homelessness and their stories in coming months. It’s aiming to raise awareness and also encourage community involvement in helping solve Utah’s homelessness issues.

“Every individual in Utah deserves to be seen and treated with dignity,” Clark Ivory, chairman of the Utah Impact Partnership board, said in a prepared statement. “Our community is unifying in an unprecedented way to take care of our neighbors so they are not subjected to unnecessary trauma or neglect. By elevating the dignity of each individual and sharing their stories, we reinforce our humanity and underscore our collective responsibility to uplift and support one another.”

Project Human Dignity

The goal of Project Human Dignity is to help inform Utahns about the “why” behind now years of increased investment — from both the public and private sectors — toward helping solve homelessness, and to inspire them to be part of solutions.

Natalie Gochnour, associate dean in the David Eccles School of Business and director of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah, also acts as an adviser for Utah Impact Partnership, helping bring data and public policy support for the group and by extension Project Human Dignity.

Gochnour told Utah News Dispatch on Tuesday that Project Human Dignity aims to harness storytelling to help galvanize public empathy and understanding around Utah’s homeless issues to help pave the way for comprehensive public support of continued investment and problem solving.

“We think of it as an understanding campaign,” she said, adding that it’s the beginning of a multi-year effort. “Step one is to help people see the human side of this challenge and to build greater compassion, and put our public in a situation where they recognize this is a community of interest. All of us together, and all of us with our homeless brothers and sisters, we need to take care of our neighbors.”

“And what better way,” she said, “is to see?”

Gochnour said Project Human Dignity is attempting to go beyond a public service announcement that urges an immediate call to action. Rather, this is a “very deliberate effort” to shape attitudes and beliefs.

“Step one is the simple truth that people deserve dignity,” she said. “When you don’t have a home — when you are suffering like many in Utah’s homeless population are suffering — we need to see them and have a greater understanding of them. We need to care.”

Utah Impact Partnership’s ultimate goal is to help ensure “every individual has a secure place to call home, reducing homelessness both immediately and in the long run,” according to a news release. “To achieve this goal, UIP has brought together a coalition that spans community champions, housing and mental health experts, emergency responders, elected officials, and service providers from both the public and nonprofit sectors — all committed to driving significant transformation across Utah.”

State and local leaders including Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall and others all shared the launch of Project Human Dignity on social media on Saturday.

“We invite Utahns to join us in a movement that marries courage with compassion, education with action, and respect with service, aiming to uplift and dignify every corner of our community,” said Gail Miller, co-founder of the Utah Impact Partnership and emeritus vice chair. She’s also the owner of the Larry H. Miller Company, and Utah’s wealthiest person. “Join us as an Impact Partner to learn, serve, give, and advocate, forging a path that will transform our community with change grounded in dignity and focused on collective success.”

Project Human Dignity is the beginning of a “comprehensive, multi-year strategy to deepen community understanding, create greater empathy, and confront the state’s critical challenges head-on,” according to a news release.

Renowned director, A-list celebrity photographer joins effort

For the project, Utah Impact Partnership hired the Henrie Group and R&R Partners, an advertising and government affairs agency headquartered in Las Vegas. Scott Murray, creative director with R&R Partners, told Utah News Dispatch on Tuesday their “charge from the beginning was just, ‘Ask people to think about the homeless in a slightly different way. Change their perception.'”

Murray said no matter the city — New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago — “we all do it, we walk by the homeless, give them a nod, but you keep going.” The aim of Project Human Dignity is to encourage Utahns to think about homeless individuals as “human beings.”

“They’re people with names and problems,” he said.

Murray said when he first started the project, he thought of his friend, writer and director Sasha Levinson. She agreed to be the main director — and she connected Murray with A-list celebrity photographer Victoria Stevens, whose portfolio includes Variety cover portraits of Billie Eilish. She’s also photographed Robert De Niro, Cate Blanchett, and more.

In March, Levinson, Stevens and their crew went to downtown Salt Lake City and visited Catholic Community Services’ Weigand Resource Center, a homeless day center next to the St. Vincent De Paul Dining Hall. There, they spent a day photographing and interviewing Utahns experiencing homelessness for Project Human Dignity.

In total, Murray said they photographed about 50 to 60 people and conducted long-form interviews of 15 to 20 people. Expect more of their stories to be told by Project Human Dignity in coming months.

Randy Chappell, director of basic needs for Catholic Community Services, said the film and photography crew took over the upstairs floor of the Weigand Center for the day, and devoted their time to listening to the stories of dozens of Utah’s homeless.

“I loved it,” he said. “This showed that there was other people out there that cared for them, and wanted to show that they’re human and that they need to be loved just like everyone else.”

Chappell said the Weigand Centers’ clients who opted in to the photoshoot were “happy to tell their stories. … They wanted to get their stories out to the public so they can be recognized as a human being and not a homeless individual.”

Service providers “try to do our best” to share what it’s like to be homeless, but that’s easier said than done, Chappell said. He said when he shared Project Human Dignity’s recently released videos with his staff, “it brought tears to our eyes because it’s important to recognize those that are homeless just as individuals.”

Chappell said he hopes the project will help make more Utahns “more aware when they’re walking down the street and they see someone facing homelessness, just to say high and treat them just like someone else.” He said he also hopes it “eliminates fear” and inspires more people to volunteer with homeless service providers.

Utah News Dispatch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news source covering government, policy and the issues most impacting the lives of Utahns.

What is the Utah Impact Partnership?

The Utah Impact Partnership helped lobby the 2024 Utah Legislature for significant investment this year in Utah’s homelessness efforts, helping Gov. Spencer Cox’s administration to secure over $50 million for emergency homeless services. About $25 million will go toward keeping about 400 temporary winter overflow beds open, as well as site a new 600- to 800-bed emergency homeless shelter somewhere in the state.

The group agreed to match that over $50 million with an additional $15 million in philanthropic funds to go toward the state’s homelessness spending.

The Utah Impact Partnership’s board is made up of a dozen influential community and business leaders, including:

  • Clark Ivory, CEO of Ivory Homes, Utah’s largest homebuilder.
  • Randy Shumway, founder and senior partner of Cicero, a consulting company.
  • Spencer Eccles, co-founder and managing partner The Cynosure Group, an investment firm.
  • Jake Boyer, CEO of Boyer Co., a real estate development company.
  • Gary and Ann Crocker, with the Sorenson Legacy Foundation, a charitable nonprofit.
  • Christena Huntsman Durham, director and executive vice president of the Huntsman Foundation, a charitable nonprofit.
  • Lisa Eccles, president and chief operating officer of the George S. and Dolores Dore Eccles Foundation.
  • David Huntsman, president and chief operating officer of the Huntsman Foundation.
  • Sue Robel, region president of Intermountain Health.
  • Christine Ivory, of the Clark and Christine Ivory Foundation.
  • Blaine Maxfield, managing director of Welfare and Self-Reliance Services at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
  • Michael Morris, chief credit officer with Zions Bancorporation.
  • Harris Simmons, chairman and CEO of Zions Bancorporation.


Join thousands already receiving our daily newsletter.

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)