SALT LAKE CITY — In Utah’s first report on homelessness since the state’s most populous county saw a monumental shift in homeless services, the data still doesn’t show any major progress in the multimillion-dollar effort to provide shelter for those in need.

Rather, the overall number of Utahns experiencing homelessness on a single night in January, also known as the Point-in-Time count, increased by 12% compared to 2019, from 2,798 people to 3,131.

However, state officials attribute that 333-person jump to increased effort and coordination from communities across the state to find and count unsheltered individuals, rather than necessarily a bump in actual homelessness.

“Additional coordination and participation make it difficult to determine how much of the increase in the (Point-in-Time count) is a genuine increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness on a given night and how much is simply a more accurate representation of existing homelessness in Utah,” the report states.

The report also found the number of unduplicated sheltered individuals over the year decreased, from 13,570 in 2018 to 12,847 in 2019 — a 5.5% drop, according to the report.

State officials had hoped to see a change in what had been another year of mostly stagnant numbers after the shift to a new homeless system.

The report found 10 out of 10,000 Utahns are homeless — a rate that has stayed mostly the same over the last five years.

Tricia Davis, homeless program manager for the Utah Department of Workforce Services, said this year’s data, when compared to data from previous years, doesn’t show a “statistically significant” change in Utah’s homeless numbers.

“We remained pretty steady,” Davis said, noting that many factors could have influenced the 12% spike in the Point-in-Time count conducted Jan. 22, so it’s difficult to pin it to one reason.

People camp in the park strip on 300 South near 700 East in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Davis also noted this year’s report comes with a giant caveat. The data collected at the end of 2019 clearly does not take into account any major changes caused by the COVID-19 pandemic that is affecting every aspect of life since it began spreading in the U.S. and Utah in February and March.

“It’s kind of thrown everything upside down for sure,” Davis said, noting it’s still too early to say what the full impact of the pandemic on the homeless population will be. Though with increased unemployments rates and anticipated surges of evictions, advocates have been bracing for even more of a strain on Utah’s homeless system.

“We’re watching it,” Davis said.

The state was awarded over $14 million in COVID-19 grants to help homeless services. Much of the focus of the additional funding will likely be on rapid rehousing, Davis said, but it’s still too early to tell where the gaps are.

“There are just too many unknowns,” she said.

Unsheltered increase

Davis said this year’s higher number during the January count was surely influenced by the fact that there was more participation from local committees across the state, including some counties that participated in the unsheltered homeless count for the first time in many years. Nearly 90% of the increase came from the number of unsheltered individuals — people sleeping on the street, in cars or outside of an emergency shelter.

It’s hard to say whether Utah’s homeless system change with the opening of three new resource centers last fall and the closure of the Road Home’s downtown shelter could be attributed to that larger number of unsheltered homeless, Davis said.

When the downtown shelter shuttered, advocates reported some homeless clients were reluctant to leave the Rio Grande area, leading many to turn to Catholic Community Services’ Weigand Center as a 24-hour “warming center,” where beds weren’t offered but it acted as sort of waiting room for individuals to seek and wait for services.

The Weigand “warming center,” where clients were counted as “unsheltered” in the Point-in-Time count, may have also made it easier for Salt Lake County volunteers to find unsheltered individuals, Davis said. The day after the 2020 Point-in-Time count, the Sugar House temporary shelter opened, which could have housed many sitting overnight at the Weigand Center, or those who were not provided beds at any of the homeless resource centers, which had been operating at or near capacity.

“For the 2020 Point-in-Time count, we had more volunteers and improved mapping and volunteer distribution that was informed by census tracts, which contributed to a more accurate unsheltered count than ever before,” said Rob Wesemann, Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness co-chairman, in a prepared statement. “Plus, with the warming station open, we had a very simple way to talk with many unsheltered individuals who congregated in a single location.”

So while state officials can draw only limited conclusions from this year’s report, the good news, Davis said, is with a better count comes better data, and a clearer picture of the realities of Utah’s homelessness. It may take years of the same quality of data before state officials can really understand what the trend is.

“We’ve got to do some more analysis, looking at all of this data before quick assumptions are made,” she said.

People sit in the shade in the park strip on 100 South and 300 East in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Other ‘areas of improvement’

The Point-in-Time count is just one metric used to track homelessness. This year’s report also showed several other “areas for improvement,” including an increased length of stay in emergency shelters, up from 2019 to 55.4 nights, an increase of about one day. The report also found that of the people in the state’s Homeless Management Information System annual counts, 62% were experiencing homelessness for the first time, which suggests “the need for identifying additional ways of preventing initial instances of homelessness.”

Of those tracked in the Point-in-Time count, the number of chronically homeless individuals rose from 512 to 688, with 64% coming from the count of unsheltered people and “was influenced by the improved unsheltered count throughout the state,” according to the report.

Additionally, the report found the number of chronically homeless individuals nearly doubled in the Balance of State Continuum of Care, which is made up of local homeless coordinating committees covering 25 counties across the state outside Salt Lake County, and the Mountainland Continuum of Care, which is made up of Summit, Utah and Wasatch counties. That increase highlights “the need for affordable housing options and resources, including permanent supportive housing, throughout the state,” the report states.

The report did spotlight at least one success area, however. About 93% of individuals who are enrolled in permanent housing projects other than rapid rehousing successfully exit or retain housing. That shows “the system is highly effective in keeping the most vulnerable housed,” the report says.

However, housing continues to be a major bottleneck for Utah’s homeless system.

The report found that of the state’s 999 rapid rehousing beds and 174 other permanent supportive housing beds, 100% were being utilized the day of the Point-in-Time count. And of the state’s 3,085 permanent supportive housing, they were almost all filled, with 93% in use.

That shows there’s still a need to increase affordable housing options, rapid rehousing and permanent supportive housing for Utahns, Davis said.

“The key to reducing the time that people experience homelessness, and therefore decreasing the number of homeless people at any given time, is to increase affordable housing and provide access to that housing,” Jonathan Hardy, Housing and Community Development Division director, said in a statement issued Friday.

“The solution to homelessness is housing. As we help people move from homelessness to a permanent housing situation more efficiently, we get closer to the state’s goals of making homelessness rare, brief and non-recurring.”

The housing inventory also showed Utah isn’t fully utilizing its emergency shelter and transitional housing beds. Of the 2,563 emergency shelter beds available on the night of the Point-in-Time count, only 2,034 beds were being used, an occupancy rate of 79%. Of the 550 transitional housing beds, only 393 beds were being used, a 71% rate, according to the report. Many of those unused emergency shelter beds are dedicated to certain groups, including domestic violence victims and youth, so they weren’t necessarily available to other people the night of the count, according to state officials.