OGDEN — Tears dripped down Stacy Evans’ sun-weathered face as she and David Bradford sat on a sidewalk across the street from the train tracks Tuesday.
“We’ve been through hell,” Evans said. “It sucks to be homeless.”
Among their few belongings was a nearly finished bottle of vodka. They drank as they sat in the afternoon sun outside the Lantern House, a homeless shelter in Ogden.
“I’m ready to give up,” Bradford said. “I want to be buried right here.”
Bradford said he and Evans had been homeless for over a year, after Bradford lost his housing assistance when he and a neighbor got in a fistfight and he ended up with assault, disorderly conduct and public intoxication charges. Two of his charges were dismissed when he pleaded guilty to the intoxication charge — something Bradford didn’t shy away from, calling himself an “alcoholic.”
“Honestly, people don’t want to be in this situation,” Evans said, sobbing. “We do not.”
Bradford and Evans told the Deseret News of their endless grievances with homeless services in Weber County, frustrated with the rules of some of the homeless shelters, anti-camping tickets and difficulty finding public restrooms. Bradford said they had recently quit drinking to try to find housing again, but couldn’t after his trouble with the law.
They are familiar faces to Courtney Slater, a street outreach specialist with the Weber Housing Authority. She found the two on the sidewalk while driving near the Lantern House, where she said she usually finds dozens of homeless during daytime hours.
Slater spends many of her days driving Weber County streets looking for homeless, handing out her card and hygiene kits. She told of how the people she helps — or tries to help — run the gamut, from people with bachelor’s degrees who lost their apartment after a stint of bad luck, to plumbers who can no longer work because they got injured. There’s also the chronically homeless and those with mental illnesses — including a woman with schizophrenia, who Slater said was homeless as a child when her mother froze to death while trying to keep her warm.
“It’s like heartbreak after heartbreak,” Slater told the Deseret News as she drove through Ogden, scanning the streets. She recognized Bradford and Evans as she pulled up.
Slater said Bradford had once surfaced out of homelessness — housed by the Weber Housing Authority from 2015 to 2018. But after the altercation with his neighbor, Slater said he lost eligibility for a year. Now, however, Slater said he is eligible again, she’s just been having trouble getting him to submit the application.
“I just need the paperwork,” Slater told Bradford patiently. “I can get you going.”
Visibly frustrated, Bradford said the paperwork was in his backpack and he would try and find her later to finish filling it out.
“It’s just hard to do it when you can’t even get out of the dirt,” he said.
Leaving them with some socks, soap and other supplies, Slater told the Deseret News as she drove away that half the battle with helping people is encouraging them to finish their applications when they can’t even take care of themselves, turning to substances to cope with living on the streets or in shelters.
“They get so drunk all the time, they can’t even think straight,” Slater said.
Slater knows all the homeless “hot spots” in Ogden, like the Marshall White Center’s park (before police began cracking down more recently, handing out anti-camping tickets) and what she called “the pond,” a small body of water at the edge of the city where she said people will hike to avoid police or the crowds.
Over the past two years as a homeless outreach specialist, Slater said she’s seen homelessness in Ogden — and all of Weber County — become more and more complicated and problematic.
“I’m definitely seeing an increase overall, countywide,” Slater said.
Weber County saw a “startling” increase in homelessness over the last four years, according to a report commissioned by the Weber Housing Authority and released in May. The report found Weber County’s homeless population rose by 48% from 2014 to 2018 — a rise from 254 people in January 2014 to 376 people in January 2018.
The number is based on the Point in Time count, a yearly count of sheltered and unsheltered people on a single night.
The report also found homelessness in Weber County is “proportionately higher” than homelessness in Salt Lake County — and is increasing at faster rates than it is in both Salt Lake County and in the state of Utah as a whole.
This year, as Slater’s been keeping count of people living on the streets, she said she’s already tracked about 130 people compared to only a few dozen last year.
While officials expected Operation Rio Grande — the multiagency effort in summer 2017 to root out crime and homelessness in a troubled Salt Lake City neighborhood notorious for drugs and homelessness — would have a ripple effect and perhaps scatter homeless issues to surrounding communities, Weber Housing Authority officials don’t point to it as a top factor for a rise in Weber County homelessness.
Rather, it’s the housing market, said Andi Beadles, executive director of the Weber Housing Authority.
“The No. 1 factor is rising rent costs,” Beadles said. “Rent costs are skyrocketing.”
That and lack of affordable housing is putting new pressures on Weber County families. Those who might have been able to qualify for a home loan just a few years ago are now ineligible, Beadles said.
“So now they’re renting — people with great credit and high incomes — so landlords rent to them and individuals who are lower income are forced to double up with family or into homelessness.”
That’s resulting in what seems like a spike in people experiencing shorter term homelessness in Weber County, Slater said. It’s adding to her usual clients, who she said are mostly chronically homeless individuals dealing with mental illness or substance abuse.
“It’s kind of this perfect storm in the affordable housing crisis that we haven’t seen before,” Beadles said. “It’s just having this this trickle effect on homelessness.”
It’s an impact felt statewide, with rising rents seen across the Wasatch Front with experts seeing no end in sight in today’s economy. Beadles said Weber County’s changing homeless population indicates residents are feeling the pressure.
While some people experiencing homelessness do come from other parts of the state, Slater said most of the people she deals with come from Davis or Weber counties. Davis County doesn’t have homeless services like Ogden, Slater said, so many come north to Weber County for help.
Down south, Salt Lake County has a more robust system of homeless services and often takes most of the state funding, Slater said, so Ogden is left relying on nonprofits like the 300-bed Lantern House or the up to roughly 100-bed Rescue Mission for help.
“They get the majority of the homeless funding, so we just have to make due with what we have,” Beadles said.
Weber County has lacked a “coordinating and planning body” to create a strategic plan to address the gaps and and barriers to safe and affordable housing,” this year’s report stated, so Weber County officials have been working to create a better network of services.
In May, after release of the “startling” report, the Weber Homeless Coordinating Committee announced a strategic plan to improve homeless coordination, aiming to set up three subcommittees to make homelessness “rare, brief and nonrecurring,” Beadles said.
The Weber County Commission also budgeted to hire a homeless services coordinator, Beadles said. Once the interview and hiring process is done, she said that person will “bring the right players to the table” to form those subcommittees and make progress on the plan.
Slater is hoping for more substance abuse treatment programs and housing programs to accommodate mental illness, saying many of those people can be excellent tenants if they’re just given a chance to turn their lives around.
“Really the only cure for homelessness is housing programs,” she said.