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Pandemic changes the way officials count Utah’s homeless population

COVID-19 precautions have made it more difficult for volunteers to count Utahns experiencing homelessness

Soren Simonsen, executive director of the Jordan River Commission, takes down information as to where he is seeing homeless camps during the 2021 Point-in-Time count, a nationwide annual event to survey people experiencing unsheltered homelessness, in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021.
Soren Simonsen, executive director of the Jordan River Commission, takes down information as to where he is seeing homeless camps during the 2021 Point-in-Time count, a nationwide annual event to survey people experiencing unsheltered homelessness, in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Just a few feet from where runners enjoy the picturesque collection of trails that snake across the Salt Lake Valley next to the Jordan River sit clusters of tents where people find refuge, even briefly, from the turmoil of living without reliable shelter.

And while on most days those living in the tents or under tarps don’t get a lot of attention from people who pass by on their way to recreate or work, Thursday was different.

Before the sunrise, volunteers fanned out across the state hoping to get an accurate count of just how many people in Utah are living without shelter.

This count, called the Point-in-Time Count, happens every year. But like most things, pandemic precautions forced officials to find new, safer ways to count those living without housing.

Instead of three days and extensive interviews, the count was held on a single day and volunteers didn’t make direct contact with anyone. Instead, they accounted for the number and location of structures or people they could observe without direct contact, entering the information in a specially designed app by the Salt Lake County Surveyor’s Office.

“Despite the pandemic, we felt it was important to carry out the count again this year,” said Rob Wesemann, co-chairman of the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness. “To ensure the safety and well-being of volunteers and individuals, our planning committee sought guidance from the Salt Lake County Health Department, CDC, and HUD and as a result, COVID-19 considerations have been implemented.”

Among those volunteers is Soren Simonsen, director of the Jordan River Commission who rides his bike up and down the Parkway trails inputting locations and the number of tents and other shelters along the river’s corridor on a windy winter morning.

He said the commission members volunteered the first year, but last year, they began working with the planning committee because he saw more and more people migrating to the river’s edge seeking refuge.

“It’s not only about getting numbers for federal and state funds for social services, but it’s about understanding what the impacts of homelessness are,” Simonsen said. “It’s also a really important tool in connecting individuals to support services. We’d carry cards with phone numbers and information on them, and try to make a direct connection with people.”

But this year, they couldn’t have any interaction at all in an effort to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Some have asked city and state officials if there are more people living without shelter in Utah during the last year, and this kind of count can help determine whether there is truth to that perception. Salt Lake County has 1,000 beds distributed between four shelters, and they recently converted a hotel at 2333 W. North Temple into a temporary shelter. The hotel will serve as an overflow shelter until April 15.

Still, there are dozens of tents linking Salt Lake City streets, with one camp now a collection of nearly 30 tents and other temporary structures. Sorensen isn’t sure if the number of those without housing are rising, but he is seeing an increase of camping along the river.

“From my own observation, there are more people camping at the Jordan River than I’ve ever seen,” he said. “I’ve been ... riding my bike there for 30 years.”

He said the camps are more frequent, spread over more miles of the trail system, and there are larger encampments.

“The large encampments, like the ones we have now, I haven’t seen those before,” he said. “There are some cleanups going on in Salt Lake City right now, and that is probably why we’re seeing larger camping (groups) along the river.”

But unless officials can get an accurate accounting of how many people are living on the streets, it’s hard to know if the problem is worse, or if more people are choosing to seek shelter at encampments rather than in official shelters.

There are a number of other reasons for the annual count. Officials hope to talk with those who are living unsheltered and see if there isn’t a way to connect them with services that might improve their situations.

The count also helps policymakers and program administrators understand just how many people are homeless, and it helps them set goals and measure progress in ending homelessness. It helps communities address local needs and identify strengths and gaps in services and programs.

It allows policymakers and advocates to give the public accurate information, as they work to increase public awareness of issues and try to find resources for needs. The count tries to assess the issues across the state, although there might be unique needs in different counties and communities.