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September 25, 2022

How Utah is succeeding — and falling short — in helping the homeless

Homeless campsites in Salt Lake City on Tuesday. Utah has released its annual homeless report showing success — and some failures — in the effort to end chronic homelessness. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — In Utah’s second annual homelessness report since Salt Lake County saw a monumental shift in homeless services, the data is showing some successes, but also still some failures.

In the year marred by the COVID-19 pandemic, Utah has continued its four-year downward trend in the number of people experiencing homelessness for the first time, according to the annual report by the Utah Department of Workforce Services. That figure is down 21.7%, from 9,493 people in 2017 to 7,433 people in 2020.

But even though Salt Lake County’s three new homeless resource centers were designed to cycle individuals out of emergency shelter situations as fast as possible with a higher focus on diversion and housing when available, the length of time people are staying in those shelters has increased from an average of 55 days in 2019 to 66 days in 2020, according to the report.

While Utah’s homeless system continues to miss the goal to make homelessness brief, the report does show successes in the state’s effort to make homelessness “non-recurring,” or to limit the number of people repeatedly finding themselves homeless. The state met that goal, the report states, by reducing that number from 32% to 29%.

In 2020, 95% of people enrolled in permanent housing projects either exited or retained their permanent housing, up from 93% reported in 2019, according to the report.

“The system is highly effective in keeping the most vulnerable in housing,” the report states.

Additionally, the report found Utah’s total annual count of people enrolled in emergency shelter and transitional housing projects dropped from 12,832 in 2019 to 10,846 in 2020.

But one crucial metric in the report — the annual Point-in-Time count that marks the overall number of Utahns experiencing homelessness on and off the streets during a single given night in January — comes with a giant disclaimer.

Citing the pandemic, the report states this year’s Point-in-Time count totals “cannot be compared to previous years’ unsheltered and total counts” in the ways counts have been compared in the past.

The count showed a total of 3,655 Utahns were experiencing homelessness, including 2,410 sheltered and 1,155 unsheltered, on Jan. 27.

That’s up from 3,131, including 704 unsheltered and 2,427 sheltered on Jan. 22, 2020, a year that state officials attributed the increase to better counting. Nearly 90% of that increase last year came from the number of unsheltered individuals — people sleeping on the street, in cars or outside of an emergency shelter.

“Through careful planning and the implementation of safety protocols and additional non-congregate shelter options, the homeless service system was able to provide shelter to roughly the same number of people on a single night as they were pre-pandemic,” the report states. “While it is important to acknowledge that the Pandemic (Point-in-Time) count increased throughout the state, especially among those experiencing unsheltered homelessness, it is difficult to establish a precise measurement of the increase due to methodological differences between the 2021 Pandemic (Point-in-Time) count and previous (Point-in-Time) counts necessitated by COVID-19.”

The unsheltered portion of the Point-in-Time count was “modified significantly” during the pandemic, the report states. Local homeless agencies did not collect any demographic or subpopulation data during this year’s count.

“Instead, they simply reported the total number of individuals experiencing unsheltered homelessness on the night of the count to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission,” the report states.

Due to higher COVID-19 case counts in Salt Lake County and recommendations from local health experts, the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness “reduced interaction between volunteers and those experiencing homelessness by having outreach teams and volunteers report those they observed experiencing homelessness in randomly selected census tracts on the morning of Jan. 28 rather than completing a survey,” the report states. “These random samples were then extrapolated across other tracts anticipated to have similar unsheltered homeless populations to calculate the overall unsheltered count.”

The report added: “While these modifications were necessary for the safety of all involved, they potentially impacted the results of the unsheltered counts across the state.”

The pandemic also came with over $14 million in federal COVID-19 relief aid.

From June 2020 to March 2021, that money expanded services by funding 66 projects across 30 agencies, supporting 7,563 individuals through homeless prevention, rapid re-housing, emergency shelter, and street outreach programs, according to the report.

Homeless prevention programs helped 160 people. Rapid re-housing helped 436 people. Emergency shelters served 6,392 people. And street outreach supported 1,130 people, according to the report.

This story will be updated.

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