Will Utah’s homeless services be prepared to meet the demand in services from the coronavirus fallout? 

Current indicators are bleak.   

Back in February, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness claimed Salt Lake City’s homelessness situation was “1,000 times better.” Just a few weeks later, the country shut down and entered an economic crisis as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Despite the robust claims, the situation in February still left ample room for improvement. We noted problems with data sharing causing a gap in standard metrics to better understand the situation. 

With no clear answer on who’s in charge of homelessness efforts, we called for the establishment of a state director of homeless services. That call to action is even more necessary now. 

Six months deep into the global pandemic, a recent report shows little to no progress has been made in the multimillion-dollar effort to help provide shelter for those in need. 

Report shows no major progress on Utah homelessness as COVID-19 impacts loom

In fact, the Point-in-Time count — the overall number of Utahns experiencing homelessness on a single night in January — saw an increase of 12%, compared to 2019. 

Officials say this number isn’t statistically significant compared to the past five years, and the rise is likely attributed not to an actual increase in persons experiencing homelessness, but from better coordination and data sharing between communities. 

Even so, it raises concern over where the state stands to face an expected increase from pandemic devastation. 

The data collected so far doesn’t take any major changes from the pandemic into account. Increased unemployment rates and a potential surge in eviction rates are expected to put even more of a strain on the system. 

Finding and building affordable housing has been at the forefront of the homelessness issue, and the pandemic has done its work on contractors and supply chains.

Across the country, crowded shelters and closed businesses have led to the homeless population being at particularly high risk for catching and spreading the virus. For many experiencing homelessness in large cities, social distancing and proper sanitizing measures are practically out of the question. 

In New York City and California, programs were implemented to re-shelter thousands of high-risk individuals at empty hotels after a high number of cases appeared in the homeless population. 

Even without an increase in the number of individuals experiencing homelessness, Utah is also in need of a rapid increase in affordable housing, rehousing and permanent supportive housing options. 

This latest report sheds some light on the current state, but its lack of information emphasizes the need for more coordinated efforts. With a potential homelessness wave on the horizon, reliable data will be critical in assessing needs and progress. 

The burden of disease has never been spread equally across society, and this latest example has again exposed the need for more efficient and effective homelessness services. 

Now is the time to prepare. The need for a true leader in this space still exists, and if Utah wants a fighting chance to adequately serve one of the state’s most vulnerable populations, there’s no time for hesitation.