An ambitious one-night study of the number of homeless people staying in Utah shelters indicates that the U.S. Census Bureau's "Street and Shelter Night" probably produced an undercount.

In fact, trends indicate that only one-fifth of the homeless stay in shelters.The Census Bureau report listed 542 homeless people in Salt Lake shelters and another 163 on the street for "S Night," March 20, 1990. Throughout the state the Census Bureau counted 925 people in shelters and 276 on the street.

A survey conducted Jan. 31, 1991, by the Community Development Division of the Department of Community and Economic Development found 590 homeless people in Salt Lake shelters. That figure did not include the men who stay in the 50-capacity Rescue Mission because the mission did not participate in the survey. However, the mission did take part in S Night.

Statewide, 1,090 homeless individuals were staying in shelters Jan. 31.

No attempt was made to count the number of homeless people who live on the streets, in cars and in encampments, according to Kerry Bate and Dan DeGooyer, who analyzed the data and prepared the 1991 report. However, included in the 1991 study were figures from three surveys conducted since 1986 which indicate that only about one-fifth of homeless people stay in shelters. If those numbers are accurate, the report says, Utah may have more than 5,000 homeless people.

The Jan. 31 study was requested by Housing and Urban Development, which asked each state to conduct an extensive survey of the homeless to give policymakers a better understanding of the extent of homelessness and to find ways to "tailor pubic policy to eliminating" it.

In 1989, the legislative auditor general said Utah's homeless services received $2.14 million in federal "McKinney Act" dollars, $305,943 in non-McKinney funds and $97,500 in state funds. Proceeds from a homeless trust account, created through tax checkoff contributions, also go to homeless programming.

Salt Lake City has the largest portion of the state's homeless population (72 percent), followed by 20 percent in Ogden, 2 percent in Utah County and 6 percent in the rest of the state.

Operated by Travelers Aid Society, the Salt Lake Community Shelter and Resource Center houses 42 percent of those staying in shelters. One-fourth of those in shelters were in families; three-fourths were single homeless people. The majority were men.

Census Bureau officials said early in the 1990 process that they didn't expect their count to be an accurate portrayal of America's homeless population. But it was the first national attempt to include the homeless in population figures.

Enumerators reported that streets and camps were quiet and generally deserted, an indication that many of the people who live on the streets did not want to be counted.

"Utah's 31 January 1991 Homeless Count" says the state has a four-fold action plan that includes prevention, adequate support of the shelters with emphasis on transitional and permanent housing opportunities for Utahns who are homeless, and "adequate supportive services to insure a successful transition from the streets and shelters back into permanent housing."

Among other findings of the survey: 8 percent of the homeless respondents are physically disabled, 5 percent are developmentally disabled, 7 percent chronically mentally ill, 38 percent abuse drugs or alcohol, 22 percent are veterans and 23 percent are employed.