Utah has pumped hundreds of millions of dollars toward addressing homelessness here over the past several years — but it hasn’t been enough to keep up with what’s been a storm of problems that have swirled into a massive headwind against the state’s goals.

The data is clear: Utah’s homeless population is increasing, according to the state’s 2022 homelessness report released Wednesday by the Utah Department of Workforce Services’ Office of Homeless Services.

That’s even though homelessness spending in Utah has increased more than 600% since 2016, according to a recent audit. Legislative auditors have estimated Utah’s homeless system spent more than $100 million in 2017 on direct and indirect costs associated with the homeless. In 2019, that figure ballooned to over $300 million, according to estimates by the Governor’s Office for Planning and Budget.

Some key findings from the new state report released Wednesday:

  • The number of Utahns experiencing homelessness for the first time has gone up 14%, to 7,712 in 2021. That’s 1,000 more than in 2020 — and marks the first time that measure has increased in the past five years.
  • On Jan. 26, the day of the annual Point-in-Time count, 3,356 people in Utah were experiencing homelessness, including 872 who were unsheltered and 2,684 who were sheltered. That’s up from a total of 3,131 in 2020. In 2021 — a year when the Point-in-Time count’s methodology changed and is therefore more difficult to compare to this year’s and years’ prior data — 3,565 people in Utah were experiencing homelessness.
Utah homeless spending is up by 600%, but the problems ‘continue to grow.’ Here’s what an audit says leaders should do

It’s not good news.

But state analysts and officials with the state Department of Workforce Services say they’re not surprised by the increase, pointing specifically to immense challenges that were already considered a crisis years ago, and have only sharpened since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic: Utah’s housing shortage, skyrocketing housing prices, record low vacancy rates and rising rental rates. Not to mention the pandemic’s impact on the economy, the job market, livelihoods and, simply, the day-to-day lives of Utahns.

Given those challenges, it’s a wonder the numbers aren’t worse. In fact, it would probably be more shocking to see Utah’s homelessness population decrease.

“And unfortunately,” noted Tricia Davis, assistant director of the Office of Homeless Services, “we’re just on par with what’s happening throughout the nation. Preventing homelessness is a much bigger conversation.”

Why is Utah’s homeless population increasing?

Joseph Jensen, data manager for the Office of Homeless Services, told the Deseret News the data does in more certain terms show homelessness is increasing in Utah.

“We are seeing more people experiencing homelessness,” he said.

The data — now using the same methodology as the 2020 report after surveyors switched their strategies mid-pandemic — is reflecting a more certain increase both in the Point-in-Time count and in people entering emergency shelter and transitional housing over the course of the year.

“That obviously is something that is concerning to us, and it speaks to the fact that people are entering homelessness at a faster rate right now than we’re able to move them out into safe, stable, permanent housing options,” Jensen said. “So we’re keeping a close eye on that.”

Jensen and Davis both pointed to Utah’s housing crunch and other economic factors as likely contributing culprits that can’t be ignored.

“We do feel like that’s being driven, at least in part, by the tightening housing market, very low vacancy rates, housing prices, (and) rental prices have increased dramatically over the last year, really over the last several years,” Jensen said. “And then we also think we’re seeing some of the impact of COVID in that as well, driving those numbers up as people that perhaps were in a precariously housed situation ... getting pushed over the edge.”

It’s not a surprising development that the data is now reflecting those effects — it just usually takes time for the numbers to show the impact. Now, the numbers have caught up.

“And those reflect what we’re seeing nationwide as well,” Jensen said, pointing to U.S. Department of Urban Development data that shows homelessness across the nation has been on the rise.

“We are kind of in line with that same trend, not as severe as what we’re seeing in some other parts of the country, but still seeing those increases starting to hit us as well,” he said.

Not all bad news

However, in his analysis of the state’s latest report, Jensen sees some positives that deserve attention.

“As we look at this overall, we are seeing some things we are concerned about. But we’re encouraged that while we are seeing increased demand and challenges for our system, we’re not seeing some of those measures increase.” Jensen told the Utah Homelessness Council on Wednesday during a briefing about the report.

Jensen noted the metric for tracking how long people are staying in emergency shelters has increased only slightly over the last two year. In 2021, Utah’s goal was to decrease the average length of time people spend in emergency homeless shelters to 61 days, with a long-term goal of 20 days or less. Last year, that average length of stay was 68 days, missing the state’s goal. However, that represented a less than one-day increase from 2020.

“It really leveled off,” Jensen told the Deseret News. “So we’ve kind of stabilized there.”

That’s not great news given Utah is still behind its goal. But Jensen said it’s also not bad news, given it hasn’t drastically increased despite Utah’s increased homeless population and all of the challenges putting additional pressures on the homelessness system.

“We’re pretty proud of the fact that that has stabilized and we’re able to make some progress on keeping that down,” he said.

It’s also worth highlighting, Jensen said, that a majority of people in Utah’s shelters — 53% — are staying 30 days or less, “and that’s a growing percentage.” However, the percentage of those who are staying longer than nine months is also growing, now up to 6%.

“So it really does speak to the challenges that we face, with the tight rental market and rising costs,” Jensen said. “But especially for those long-term shelter stayers, people that have longer histories of homelessness and are dealing with the trauma of that and may have additional barriers and challenges, then it gets harder for them to get and keep stable housing. It is a challenge for us to get those people connected with the right type of supports.”

Jensen and Davis also see success in another important metric. For its goal to make homelessness nonrecurring, the state’s target this year was to help 94% of individuals in the state’s homeless system to retain housing.

“That is a very successful measure for us,” Davis said.

Last year, 95% of people enrolled in permanent housing projects, other than rapid rehousing, either exited to or retained their permanent housing. The state has steadily improved on this goal since 2017, the report states.

Davis noted the Utah Legislature budgeted $55 million toward deeply affordable housing and homelessness efforts earlier this year, which will help fund expanded permanent supportive housing programs. “Hopefully, it will impact that measure even more and in a positive way,” she said.

Davis also reminded the Utah Homelessness Council that Utah’s homelessness efforts have benefited from a significant amount of federal COVID-19 relief funding over the past couple of years, but that funding will soon end.

“It will be interesting to see” how Utah’s homelessness performance measures will be impacted once those funds run dry, she said. “So we really need to be thinking about all of it from a lot of different angles as we analyze some of this data more.”

Especially given the impacts of the housing market and COVID-19, Utah’s homelessness numbers could be a lot worse. And remember, Salt Lake County had barely transitioned to a new homelessness services model at the onset of 2020, having just opened the three new homeless resources before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

“That is something that sometimes gets lost. (Salt Lake County) was adapting to a completely shelter model, trying to connect that with appropriate housing and getting staffed up,” Jensen said. “The pandemic certainly didn’t help (staffing issues).”

Those labor issues persist today, Pamela Atkinson, a longtime homelessness advocate and member of the Utah Homelessness Council, told her colleagues.

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“I think we forget sometimes when we’re looking at data how short staffed our housing resources are and how overworked,” she said, adding operators have “done just about everything they can to get people interested in this kind of work.”

So yes, Utah’s homeless services system still does “have a lot of room for improvement,” Jensen said, but “we’re encouraged overall by a lot of the trends that we’re seeing in a lot of these areas.”

Former Utah Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, now the state’s homeless coordinator, said in a written response to the 2022 state report he sees successes, but also areas that need improvement.

“Though there have been some considerable successes in specific areas, there is still much to do. We look forward to working with all stakeholders statewide over the next year to make significant advancements. Coordination is a key principle of success,” Niederhauser wrote. “The Office of Homeless Services is committed to working and collaborating with all stakeholders. There is much more we can accomplish if we do it together. A special thanks to all those who work tirelessly serve those experiencing homelessness.”

Is Utah solving its homeless problem? The answer is complicated
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