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SALT LAKE CITY — The number of Utahns who are homeless on any given night has increased by 1.6 percent this year compared to 2016, according to data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
A thorough one night count conducted each year in cities across the state, this year on Jan. 26, discovered 2,852 people who were homeless, the federal agency said in a release last week. Of those, 278 were found to be unsheltered.
“With rents rising faster than incomes, we need to bring everybody to the table to produce more affordable housing and ease the pressure that is forcing too many of our neighbors into our shelters and onto our streets," Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson said in a statement. "This is not a federal problem — it’s everybody’s problem.”
The agency reported that Utah's "overall homelessness" has decreased 13.2 percent compared to 2010. Additionally, 34 percent fewer veterans were homeless in Utah's 2017 count compared to last year, according to the single-night snapshot collection of data.
Also, 970 families with children were among the homeless, nearly 29 percent fewer than 2010 figures, and none of those families were discovered unsheltered, the agency said. However, 180 youths who were homeless were found to be unaccompanied by an adult guardian.
Jonathan Hardy, director of the Housing and Community Development Division with the Utah Department of Workforce Services, said there are things to be encouraged about in the overall findings.
"Our homeless population has remained pretty consistent over the last year despite our population growth," Hardy said. "The point-in-time count ... is not the be all end all measure because it's only counted one night. (But) what we've seen is that we have a system capacity to deal with the demand (for shelter) out there. I think that's the main takeaway."
Hardy identified a lack of affordable housing as a major hurdle standing in the way of the state's mantra to ensure that homelessness in Utah is "rare, brief and non-recurring."
With rents rising faster than incomes, we need to bring everybody to the table to produce more affordable housing and ease the pressure that is forcing too many of our neighbors into our shelters and onto our streets.
–Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson
"Finding affordable housing is certainly a challenge right now, and the state's been pretty committed to expanding our efforts there," he said, citing legislation passed this year incentivizing developers to build low-income units.
Kathy Bray, CEO of Volunteers of America-Utah, agreed there is a sore need for more affordable housing in the state.
"People who have lower incomes and maybe have just a new job might not compete as well, so it's very difficult for (those who are homeless) to have employment to compete in the open market for existing units. Sometimes they get them and sometimes they don't, and when they don't get them, that means a longer stay in the shelter," Bray said. "While they're waiting, which can be months, they live in a shelter, so that's part of the population who are living (there): people who are ready to move into the community."
Without a stable place to live, a low-income person trying to get back on their feet will have a very difficult time doing so even when they've benefitted from an array of other services, Bray said. She described the math regarding the lack of low-income housing units as deceptively simple.
"The reality is that there aren't adequate housing units available for everybody who needs a place to live," Bray said.
She said she is encouraged to see policymakers latch on to several initiatives designed to address homelessness in the state.
"I think that the improvements and changes that have been made as far as the scattered (shelter) sites, population-specific services, the Medicaid expansion, Operation Rio Grande — I think those are all moving toward the same goal of preventing people from becoming homeless and moving people out of homelessness as soon as possible," Bray said.
But she cautioned any encouraging data about homelessness is no reason to be complacent about the persistent problems faced by the state's destitute.
"We need everybody to continue to fight for the solutions," Bray said. "It's going to take time; we need long-term commitment."