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Homelessness is on the rise as Games begin

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The number of homeless people is going up at the start of the 2002 Winter Games, not just from new folks still coming to town to look for work but from those already here being pushed onto the streets by an Olympic-sized bump in low-income hotel and motel room rates.

Shelters housed 150 more people Thursday night than a year ago, said Matt Minkevitch, executive director of The Road Home, formerly Traveler's Aid Society, which operates four homeless shelters on the Wasatch Front.

That is a significant, though not surprising, increase that exceeds seasonal projections, Minkevitch said. Displacement by high room rates is part of the problem, he said, but he believes other factors are the declining economy since a year ago and an increase of people seeking temporary Olympics-related work.

"The chance of employment, even if it's temporary, is attractive to someone who is desperate for work," Minkevitch said.

Besides the usual shelters, community service agencies are providing an emergency shelter service during the Olympics.

"We're doing all we can to make sure people have a place to go," Minkevitch said. "We won't know if we have enough until we go through it. It's a little like a ski jumper: We won't know for sure how well we did until we land."

The Salt Lake City Mission is reporting a "dramatic" increase in the demand for shelter, food, clothing and services.

The increase is partly a direct result of the rate increases, but also partly because of the influx of people who have come to the city seeking jobs related to the Winter Games, said Philip Arena, director of development for the mission. He said, however, the stream of people from different parts of the country looking for work began about a year ago.

The mission gauges demand on the number of meal requests, which nearly tripled in 2001 from 2000, from 45,000 meals to 132,000.

About 12,000 people received clothing, furniture and household goods in 2000, increasing to 16,000 people in 2001.

"While many individuals have found employment, many others have not," he said.

Signs are still posted at the mission and the Salvation Army announcing jobs can be had during the Olympics. Most involve security, parking and clean-up but are minimum wage and don't pay enough to offset the rent increases.

Rumors have been circulating that people planning to protest for more aid to the poor and the homeless during the Games are taking up emergency shelter services. The agencies said Thursday that isn't happening but their overriding goal is to find shelter for all those who truly need it.

Minkevitch said no matter how chaotic the crowds get, the agencies and volunteers for the homeless will be out in force making sure that people who might need shelter know where to go.

"Our commitment is there not only during the Games but well after the spectators and athletes have gone home," he said.

Social service agencies say demand has been increasing the past three weeks, in no small part because the rates of low-rent rooms have increased.

Several people waiting for meals at the mission last weekend said the hotels and motels where they were staying had suddenly announced that February rents were going up from about $100 or $200 a week to about $600 or $700 per week.

The vision of profiting from the Games creates an urge that's pretty difficult to avoid, say heads of agencies that provide services to low-income Utahns. But they also point out that previous Olympics in other cities have shown pushing rates up at marginal and run-down housing doesn't attract new, high-end customers but instead just forces those who are on the edge into homelessness, at least for a few weeks.

Service agencies are starting to see people who have been displaced by high rates, said Glen Bailey, executive director of Crossroads. He said activity at the agency's food pantry "has been a nightmare."

Many people have been reporting they have either left or been evicted from low-rent housing the past two weeks, he said.

The actual number of displaced persons isn't known, but at least five hotels and apartment houses in Salt Lake City have been shut to low-income residents, said Bill Tibbitts, a services coordinator with Crossroads. Tibbitts said he started hearing from people coming in for services in mid-January that they had been displaced because a landlord wanted to spruce up rooms in anticipation of luring Olympics customers.

"I also don't know how many people coming for the Olympics have actually registered those kinds of rooms," Tibbitts said. "But I'll bet there are a lot of them who will change their minds once they see some of the places."

The largest increase Tibbitts knows of is the Utah Hostel that he said went from $12 to $200 per night.

E-mail: jthalman@desnews.com