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Annual count of Utah's homeless underway

SALT LAKE CITY — By day, Alex Morgan is a caseworker at Sunrise Metro Apartments, a 100-unit complex that provides supportive housing to people who were chronically homeless.

In the wee hours of Thursday morning, however, Morgan was a volunteer for the annual Point-in-Time Count of homeless Utahns.

"It sounded interesting to me. Maybe we might be able to find more people who qualify for housing and not be homeless anymore," he said.

But Morgan's volunteer experience took a turn he had not anticipated, he said. While looking for unsheltered people in Memory Grove, his team encountered two men on a hillside, one of whom was unable to walk because he had injured his leg. The team summoned help.

"It was raining and it was pretty icy. We were slipping trying to get to him. A few of the emergency workers slipped on their backs. It was pretty treacherous. It probably took 10 guys to haul him down from there," Morgan said.

"It was a pretty sketchy situation," he said. "Who knows how long he would have been stuck up there if we hadn't found him?"

Morgan was among some 140 volunteers who turned out shortly before 4 a.m. Thursday to take part in the annual count of homeless people, as required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The count is conducted during the same time frame nationwide and helps drive federal funding decisions.

There were 75 volunteers and staff on the street Thursday morning who made 91 client contacts and completed 33 surveys. However, many more hands help the effort from preparing and serving food to volunteers, to data entry of information collected.

Gordon Walker, director of the Utah Division of Housing and Community Development, said the count also helps the community direct funding and services based on data.

Last year's count of homeless people in shelters and those unsheltered was 3,249 statewide. The count is the basis for an annualized count. In 2013, more than 15,000 people experienced homelessness in Utah at some point during the year.

“This year’s Point-in-Time Count is also critical to our state’s goal in ending chronic homelessness in Utah," Walker said. "We believe our counting methods are more comprehensive and the data collected will help speed the road to permanent housing for our chronically homeless population.”

Elsewhere in the city, another Point-in-Time Count team met a man who identified himself only as Jimmy and said he had been living in his car for a couple of months. Even though he is employed, he can't afford rent. He's tried to stay in shelters but said he feels more comfortable on his own.

"Things started going bad two months ago. I just don't have enough money to rent out a place," he said.

On Thursday, his car was parked in a vacant lot behind a fast-food restaurant along the TRAX line.

Team leader Larry Mullin, a outreach worker with Volunteers of America of Utah, asked Jimmy if he would help with the survey. In exchange for his time, he offered Jimmy a grocery gift card donated by Smith's.

Mullin also gave Jimmy Volunteers of America's contact information so he can get additional help to get back on his feet.

Lora Bawden, who was teamed with Mullin, said she has a daughter about Jimmy's age.

"This is sad," said Bawden, AmeriCorps program coordinator for Salt Lake County.

A number of AmeriCorps members volunteered for the count as a service project, she said.

Visiting unsheltered homeless people is eye-opening, Bawden said. While many live in cars, others stay in tents. A few people live in large concrete drainage pipes that are not used during the winter.

"Out in this atmosphere, it's a completely different experience," she said.

Another volunteer, Weber State University senior Terrisha Judd, agreed. She learned about the count through her internship with Volunteers of America's Homeless Youth Resource Center.

"It's not the normal volunteer experience. It's a way to shine a different light on things and to experience the homeless population from a different perspective," she said.

Mullin said HUD makes funding decisions based on the count and quarterly reports from service providers so it is important to make as many contacts as possible.

Some people his team encountered Thursday refused to come out of their tents or cars to respond to the survey.

"I've had people tell me off, and the next day they talk your ear off. We'll come back. We never give up on anybody," he said.

The count concludes Saturday.