Legacy of love: Hospitality House remembers Utah Phillips 10 years after his death | TheUnion.com

Legacy of love: Hospitality House remembers Utah Phillips 10 years after his death

Bruce "Utah" Phillips became famous the world over by performing songs, poems and stories that told the tale of normal, hard-working folks.

Off the stage, he was well known as a labor organizer and advocate for the homeless. He was a local celebrity who placed high value on people being treated fairly and equally regardless of their economic status.

Phillips was instrumental in opening Hospitality House, a nonprofit community shelter for the homeless in Nevada County that is largely funded by donations. The building in which the shelter resides is now called Utah's Place, in honor of the dedication and hard work Phillips put into the project.

Today marks the 10th anniversary of Phillips' death. To commemorate the occasion Hospitality House will host Remembering Utah Phillips, an open house to which the community is invited. Attendees will have an opportunity to share a story, a song, a poem or a memory of Phillips.

Among those in attendance will be Phillips' good friend Mikail Graham who has paid tribute to Phillips in his own way by hosting the Night of Giving, an annual benefit for Hospitality House.

Graham said today's event is a way to call folks in who cared and would want to support Utah's vision in this decade of remembrance.

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He said the face of homelessness has changed since Phillips' passing.

"Thirteen, 14 years ago there was a sense of homelessness that people noticed but it wasn't like it is today," said Graham. "Utah saw what was coming, even though it was a lesser then."

Graham said Utah saw the importance of a person having "a place where you could have dignity and respect and get up on your feet."

Brendan Phillips, Utah's son, was clearly influenced by his father's advocacy for the homeless. The younger Phillips currently serves as Nevada County's housing resource manager.

"His vision about homelessness had that sort of radical (ability) to help recognize where people are coming from," said Phillips, "and being involved with their lives and what the reality is around homelessness."

"I take a lot from his music and his stories," he continued. "They ground me as I work on these issues all around homelessness."

"I can't tell you how much in the past couple weeks I thought, if I just had my dad to confer with a little bit on this issue, just to see if I'm headed in the right direction."

Phillips agrees homelessness looks much different in Nevada County now than it did when his father was beginning work on Hospitality House.

"It has certainly increased," he said. "The issue is intertwined with the availability of affordable housing — it has been that way since time immemorial. More families are homeless than ever before."

"I think what's changed is that we no longer live in a community that is affordable to the people who make their living here."

Utah Phillips' widow Joanna Robinson said she thinks her husband would be pleased with how far Hospitality House has come since its beginnings.

"I think he would be moved and very heartened by what our community has accomplished at Hospitality House," said Robinson.

"Bruce's emphasis at our Hospitality House meetings in the beginning was 'whatever is good for the guest.' We should do whatever is good for the guest and always keep our eyes on that. And I think Hospitality House has done that and that is the real reason for our success."

Robinson expressed her joy at the generosity of the community, which she said has stepped up with eagerness, understanding, compassion and donations.

"Not the least of all, they have put their money where their mouth is and that's how we managed to get a building," Robinson said.

Much of Phillips' music and art was not only inspired by but also a heartfelt tribute to those who struggle with being displaced. Mikail Graham and Brendan Phillips each cited the song "What We Need," which Phillips wrote in 2007.

Lyrics include, "Everyone needs a nice place to live in, and good food to eat that's not too expensive, and clean clothes with no holes or patches … A street to walk safely, and benches to sit on with shade in the summer, and warm friendly places to be in the winter."

Brendan Phillips will be performing at today's event, and is grateful for his father's lessons.

"Music and stories are the legacy that he left. It's something I can look to for inspiration. I think he would be in awe by the community support that Hospitality House enjoys. My focus is more housing. I think my dad would applaud it. It's a community that needs to respond to this issue as a whole."

Jennifer Nobles is a staff writer for The Union. She can be reached at jnobles@theunion.com or 530-477-4231.