Volunteers walk the streets to count Utah’s homeless population

Volunteers walk the streets to count Utah’s homeless population

(Spenser Heaps, KSL)



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SALT LAKE CITY — At 4 a.m., the city streets are mostly quiet.

But it’s the best time of day to make contact with the majority of Utah’s unsheltered homeless population.

“It’s hard to sleep with cold feet,” 42-year-old Jeremy, who declined to provide his last name, said early Thursday. A sporadic drizzle of rain didn’t seem to be helping.

He came to Utah from Illinois in July to be with his wife, who was here, but she has since left and he is without a home.

Jeremy spent the night sleeping in a tent on North Temple and owns nothing but the clothes on his back. He struggles to access the vital documents that would help him secure housing or a job.

“When you have to think about and find a safe place to stay and figure out how you’re going to keep yourself warm, it’s hard to follow through on some of those steps,” Salt Lake City’s senior policy adviser David Litvack said. “But they’re so critical and vital to moving out of homelessness.”

Litvack was one of about 100 volunteers who spread out across Salt Lake County early Thursday as part of the Point-in-Time count, an annual estimate of sheltered and unsheltered homeless people in communities across the country. The count continued Friday morning and was scheduled for early Saturday, as well as in other parts of the state, in order to catch anyone filtering in or out of the area.

“People who stay on the streets tend to get up and start wandering early,” said Michelle Hoon, the city’s homeless services coordinator. She said some, who are worried about their safety, may wander through the night and sleep during the day.

“It’s important that we talk to them to connect them to the system and the resources that they might need,” said Liz Buehler, Salt Lake City’s civic engagement manager.

The count is important, too, in that it gives the United States Housing and Urban Development, as well as Congress, an idea of the extent and nature of homelessness in the nation. Federal funding is dependent upon the number of people living in those conditions.

Salt Lake City officials have made tremendous efforts to keep people off the streets, opening new shelters and resource centers, including a temporary overflow shelter that opened Thursday in Sugar House. The city is prioritizing providing options for housing to anyone who can qualify.

Overall homelessness in Utah decreased 2.7% from 2018 to 2019, according to HUD’s 2019 homelessness assessment report, including a nearly 12% decline in veteran homelessness, according to HUD regional administrator Evelyn Lim, who was in Utah Thursday to participate in the effort.

“But even with this decline, we know there is still more work to be done in the fight against homelessness,” Lim said.

Carling Mars, a volunteer with schizoaffective disorder, said she can identify with people living on the streets.

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“I have a serious mental illness and it could easily be me if I didn’t have access to the resources that I have,” the published writer said, adding that she not only needs quality health care and medications for treatment of her disorder, but support from family and friends to better cope.

An estimated 25% of homeless people across the nation are mentally ill, which makes it difficult for states, counties and cities to make an impact in reducing homelessness. But, knowing who is out there and what they might need is a good first step.

“Any kind of data helps set policy,” Litvack said.

Department of Workforce Services spokeswoman Christina Davis said Friday the groups involved hadn’t seen anything out of the ordinary during the first two days of the count. The numbers will take days to verify, she said.

Mars and others said they were surprised at how cordial and trusting people were when they were approached by strangers on the streets at 4 a.m.

“I thought there would be more resistance, especially asking such personal and sensitive questions,” she said. “They’re really willing to talk and are open.”

Walking the quiet streets, though, turns out to be “an exercise in empathy,” Buehler said.

“You really find out what it’s like out here in these early morning hours,” she said. “It’s sobering.”

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Wendy Leonard

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