Hope and Despair.
Those names were bestowed on two dogs — both Jack Russell and bluetick hound mixes — by a homeless woman called Thumper. Their monikers, she said, pretty much sum up life on the streets.
Thumper was huddled beneath a pile of blankets with her pups near Hidden Hollow in Sugar House on Thursday at 4:30 a.m. But the 39-year-old camper sat up to greet Charly Swett from the Volunteers of America (VOA), who was carrying a clipboard and a survey.
Swett and her outreach team were among 70 people Thursday canvassing the out-of-the-way places in Salt Lake County where homeless people camp. It’s part of the annual Point In Time count that is a requirement of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for funding of local and state homeless services.
Thumper has been without a home, off and on, for 25 years, she said. This time around, she hasn’t had a place to call her own since 2013 and has been eking out an existence on the streets of Salt Lake City.
Winter, she explained, is particularly difficult for homeless people. “It’s hard to stay warm,” she said. “I just get under a bunch of blankets and curl up with my dogs.”
The Point In Time exercise is an important requirement for a number of reasons, said HUD spokesman Brian Sullivan. Although the annual count includes people in shelters, it is also the only data gathered on people living outside in Utah, as well as the rest of the country. This year, it includes taking photos of respondents to go with their surveys.
“We don’t want to suggest that funding decisions we make are based solely on this data,” Sullivan said, noting there are a half-dozen other factors that are considered when allocating federal dollars to localities. “This data is important to state and local planners to identify priorities.”
Earlier this month, HUD announced grant funding in the amount of $2 billion to underwrite services to the nation’s estimated 550,000 homeless people. Competition for homeless service dollars is stiff, Sullivan said. Utah got $10.3 million this year that will help support 55 local programs.
The Point In Time survey seeks to marshal personal data, including age, gender, families, general health, diseases and addictions. It also asks respondents if they are veterans or victims of domestic abuse, and how long they have been homeless. The Point In Time crew, which includes many volunteers, will continue to scour the Salt Lake Valley through Saturday.
The information — which is collected statewide — will be compiled and made public in several months. It also will be available in the “2018 Comprehensive Report on Homelessness — Utah,” which is published in October.
It will be compared to the January 2017 data. Last year’s count listed as “unsheltered” 278 people statewide, with 2,574 in shelters and temporary transitional housing, for a total of 2,852. That’s up slightly from the 2016 total of 2,807, which was made up of 236 campers, and 2,571 people in shelters and transitional housing.
The Point In Time count is a snapshot. Although there were 2,807 people counted as homeless on one night in January 2016, a total of 13,114 suffered from homelessness in Utah that year, as some people found housing, while others lost it.
At about 5 a.m. Thursday, a slight figure pushed a shopping cart full of possessions up a dark walkway in Sugar House’s Hidden Hollow. Her name is Tammy, and she’s been homeless for 13 years. During the Point In Time survey, Tammy informed VOA outreach workers Machele Nieto and Shawn Spalding that she is HIV-positive but is doing OK.
The VOA team always offers medical help and has a medical coordinator that visits campers on site. The outreach team also offers clothing, sleeping bags and coats, as well as food and water.
“I’m so tired of living out of bags. But I don’t like the environment at the shelter,” Tammy said. “People camp out wherever they can find a spot. It’s wherever we can get away with it for as long as we can before the police come.”
Adding to the challenge of counting homeless campers this January is that the Operation Rio Grande sweep, designed to reduce crime around The Road Home shelter, led many downtown campers to scatter to other locations. Fortunately, said Rob Wesemann, who heads up this year’s canvass, the Point In Time crew was able to coordinate with the Salt Lake County Health Department, which has been mapping recently established homeless camps.
The exercise offers more than just a head count, he explained.
“It’s more than determining whether campers scattered,” said Wesemann, who also is the executive director of the Utah affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “The count also can determine whether people found permanent housing by comparing this year’s data to that of 2017.”
Just before 6 a.m., a man pedaling through the dark on a bicycle stopped when the VOA team bid him good morning. His street name is Sic, he said, and he’s 41. Sic told the team he has been homeless since 2015.
Sic suffers from extreme anxiety, he said, but gets treatment at the Fourth Street Clinic.
“I haven’t been able to find work. Someone stole my wallet, so I don’t have ID [making it more difficult],” Sic said. “After you’ve been homeless for a while, you can’t shake it. But I don’t like it.”
After the survey, Nieto and Spalding gave him socks and gloves and a gift card to Smith’s Food and Drug. Sic thanked them and pedaled away.
The survey is more than just data collection, according to organizers. It’s also meant to put names and faces on homeless people, along with their challenges, in the hope that each of them will find a way out of homelessness.