Miller family and Jazz host homeless and low-income Utahns for early Thanksgiving dinner

SALT LAKE CITY — As a snowstorm gained force outside the home of the Utah Jazz on Monday, about 3,000 gathered inside its halls for a long-standing tradition of an early Thanksgiving meal.

Several picked up new shoes and winter coats before digging into lunch, describing how misfortune and the climbing cost of rent have sent many of them into shelters, out on the street or into a friend’s home. 

Mia Halls and her daughters tucked into plates of pie as snow billowed outside. After the family gave up their cars, Halls said she couldn’t get to work and lost her housekeeping job. She hopes to get similar work in Taylorsville, where her family is staying with friends as she and her husband work to repair their credit scores. 

“It’s hard to find an apartment that’s not my whole paycheck,” Halls said. “It’s a hard road. Just got to keep your head up, basically.” 

She said she tries to remain optimistic for 10-year-old Heaven, who picked up new sneakers inside the Vivint Smart Home Arena, and Rayne, 4, who surprised her mom when she gamely polished off the cranberry sauce on her plate. 

The meal catering to Utah’s homeless and low-income families comes at a time of change for the vulnerable groups. The closure of the Road Home shelter last week marked the end of a centralized system in favor of services scattered across the Salt Lake Valley. 

On a break from doling out portions of stuffing onto sturdy paper plates, Utah Jazz owner Gail Miller said she believes the transition has been smoother than many may believe. She has reported matching roughly $8 million in donations to help the homeless in Utah. 

“There are changes, but they’re going very well,” Miller said, adding the new system better tailors individual services to a person’s needs. “I know there are a lot of things to be fixed or ironed out to make it completely compatible with what they need, but I think everyone’s on top of it.”

Miller, the chairwoman of the Larry H. Miller Group of Companies, said she was gratified to help serve those in line, whether they were shy or gregarious and toting children or pets. Buses brought in many of her guests from different parts of the valley.

“It’s very touching, because they’re just like me and they’re just in a different circumstance, and so I’m grateful to be able to provide for them,” she said. 

Miller estimates the meal now catered by Utah Food Services may be in its second decade. 

In the same spots where vendors normally sell soft pretzels and beer, visitors chowed down Monday on complimentary plates of ham, turkey and sides like mashed potatoes with parsley and gravy on top. Many took boxes to go. 

The midday meal drew a line that snaked around the arena earlier in the day.

Heather Vance, wearing a pink jacket, was among many who waited outside in snow and sleet for about 20 minutes as the arena welcomed the crowd. 

A repeat guest at the gathering who now is living in a motel, Vance said she appreciates its hosts and would like to see more such events during the holiday season. 

“Most people are just getting by,” Vance said. Her 6-year-old chihuahua, Peanut, shivered as she peeked out from under a blanket Vance clutched to her torso. 

The Beehive State is home to 300,000 now living in poverty, added Pastor Joe Vazquez. He is co-director of the Salt Lake City Mission, which handed out shoes and coats on Monday.

“Nobody in Salt Lake City should be hungry this week,” he said. “They should get the opportunity to sit down and eat a traditional Thanksgiving meal.” 

Vasquez said fewer are coming to the mission’s day center as the Road Home has closed. But more low-income families are picking up bread and other items at its food pantry as they stretch their finances to cover unexpected costs for things like medicine. 

Jennifer Ballard, who said she suffers from chronic pain due to a handful of illnesses, is among those feeling the pinch. She said others are in a similar bind — whether they receive roughly $800 a month in disability benefits like she does, are out of work or simply can’t make ends meet. 

She and her 9-year-old daughter plan to move into the Midvale family shelter and have stayed with family in the past, she said, but she’s hoping to find a more stable arrangement. 

“It would be nice to eventually be able to get myself to be well enough to where I can work,” she said. “It sucks being in this situation.” She said she counts herself as lucky, however, because she can crash with relatives if she needs to. 

Jeff Heaton, Jazz director of membership services and sales, spooned gravy over mashed potatoes and turkey nearby in his sixth year as a volunteer at the event. 

“It’s something that Gail cares a ton about, helping the homeless,” he said. “So whatever we can do to help accomplish that is what we want to do.”

By Annie Knox@anniebknox

Scroll to Top