Homeless service providers throughout Utah see spikes in people seeking help as the pandemic wears on

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Homeless individuals camp out on the streets of downtown Salt Lake City, Aug. 12, 2020. Homeless service providers throughout Utah have seen a spike in demands, including the number of people in need of emergency shelter and other resources.

In the six months since the coronavirus pandemic came to Utah, the Lantern House homeless shelter in Ogden has served 1,116 new people experiencing homelessness — 45% of whom say they’re unsheltered for the first time.

At the other end of the state, Washington County is reporting an increase in the number of homeless “individuals, families, youth, and veterans who have been fleeing from other pandemic hot spots throughout the country” and are coming to southern Utah “for respite.”

Nearly everywhere in between, homeless service providers around the state are also reporting spikes in demand for their services as the coronavirus pandemic wears on, leaving thousands around the country out of work and some at risk of losing their homes.

But in many of these communities, there’s little space to accommodate the influx, which comes at the same time homeless shelters have had to reduce their capacity to allow for social distancing in order to protect this vulnerable population from the coronavirus.

During a special meeting of the State Homeless Coordinating Committee last week, the body voted to distribute roughly $8.9 million in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding to help Utah’s homeless service providers weather the pandemic and ensure those affected by it can access the resources they need.

One of the biggest gaps the money will fill is for emergency shelter, including hotel and motel vouchers — a resource communities around the state say is needed to get people off the streets who are experiencing homelessness and have tested positive for COVID-19 or need to quarantine.

Those dollars are “really going to help people stay safe,” Tricia Davis, program manager of the homelessness programs team at the Department of Workforce Services, said in an interview.

“One of the challenges I think that our emergency shelters across the state are facing is just space, so they’ve had to reduce capacity for safety,” she said. “This money will help get individuals and families into other non-congregate shelter alternatives.”

The financial support is particularly important in Uintah County, where the Turning Point Shelter in Vernal plans to permanently close its doors Oct. 1 after determining that the high cost to remodel its building was too expensive, according to Kim Lamb, community services director at the Uintah Basin Association of Governments.

The community will now have to shift solely to motel and hotel vouchers to shelter the homeless and ensure they’re not left behind as the state continues to contend with the coronavirus.

“We can’t have these homeless individuals out on the street for numerous, numerous reasons,” Lamb told the state board. “When you look at ... the high risk of contracting the COVID and spreading the COVID, the last thing we can have them be is on the street.”

Almost all of the $76,600 the state allocated to providers in the Uintah Local Homeless Coordinating committee will be spent for emergency shelter.

The federal funding will also help set up an emergency overflow shelter in the Salt Lake Valley, where homeless resource providers have consistently been at capacity through the summer months despite more people camping to avoid the perceived higher risk of contracting the illness in shelters.

Overall, the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness received $4.5 million, or about half of the federal funding available. Around $550,000 of that will go toward the overflow shelter at St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall, and more dollars will go toward motel and hotel vouchers.

Jean Hill, co-chair of the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness, told The Tribune that money will be spent on a variety of initiatives but that the funding for emergency shelter will help service providers allow for social distancing in an effort to keep COVID-19 “from decimating our population in the resource centers.”

“The money’s going to be incredibly useful to make sure we are able to keep people in shelter — and hopefully get them past shelter and into housing,” she added.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Homeless individuals camp out on the streets of downtown Salt Lake City, Aug. 12, 2020. As the coronavirus pandemic wears on, homeless service providers have seen a definite spike in the numbers of people seeking assistance and emergency shelter.

‘Nowhere for them to go’

The increased demand for emergency shelter services around the state has particularly affected domestic violence shelters, which have reported a significant increase in requests for help as the pandemic forces some victims to stay at home with abusers, and as financial and emotional tensions escalate because of lost income or illness.

Even as businesses have reopened and some children have returned to school, the need for these resources hasn’t dropped.

Steve Lyon, who presented on behalf of the Davis County Local Homeless Coordinating Committee, said the Safe Harbor domestic violence shelter there has seen close to a 110% spike in the number of people needing services during the COVID-19 outbreak. And it had to turn away more than 300 people in the last fiscal year.

That’s partly because the center had to limit capacity “to meet the social distancing requirements,” he told the State Homeless Coordinating Committee.

The county has provided funds to help get people into hotel beds, but Lyon said there’s “still quite a large need there.” Some $50,000 of the $261,300 in federal funding that the committee allocated to the community will be prioritized for emergency shelter for people who have been struggling during the pandemic.

In the Bear River area, CAPSA and the New Hope Crisis Center for domestic violence victims have experienced a 60% and a 25% increase, respectively, in client numbers throughout the course of the pandemic, according to Stefanie Jones, chair of the Balance of State Continuum of Care.

The Bear River Local Homeless Coordinating Committee, which encompasses Box Elder, Cache and Rich counties, sought federal funding for hotel and motel vouchers and emergency shelter in order to get people off the streets and make homelessness “brief and rare and, with appropriate case management, hopefully nonrecurring,” Jones told the committee.

Much of the $953,300 the state allocated to the Bear River Local Homeless Coordinating Committee is earmarked for those purposes.

Jess Lucero, an associate professor of social work at Utah State University and a member of the Balance of State board, said that there were “major gaps” with emergency shelter in Bear River’s homeless system even before COVID-19 hit.

“We have no after-hours services for homelessness,” she noted in an interview. “There’s nowhere for them to go. There’s nowhere for them to access to get into the system. It’s been a problem for a long time.”

The COVID-19 crisis, Lucero said, has simply put a “magnifying glass” on the issue, both in the Bear River area and around the state.

“Whether or not a homeless individual is infected with COVID-19, the impacts of COVID-19 on homeless individuals in rural Utah have been really grave,” she said — especially because many areas are already missing “key components of a fully functioning homeless services system.”

Widespread impacts

While many communities listed emergency shelter as among their top priorities for funding with these federal dollars, homeless service providers also sought money to help with other impacts of the coronavirus, including increased cleaning demands and the need for personal protective equipment.

“They’re needing to really focus on keeping common areas clean,” Davis, of state workforce services, said, noting “an increased cost” for many emergency shelters.

Catholic Community Services, which operates the Weigand Homeless Day Center in downtown Salt Lake City, requested funding for a part-time janitor, noting in its application that one of the gaps caused by the pandemic “is our ability of our staff to both meet the needs of our clients and to also regularly clean our facility.”

“The amount of cleaning required has eaten into our staff’s daily workload,” the organization noted. And without a dedicated budget, the weekly professional aerosolized cleanings the organization has implemented to reduce the risk of the coronavirus have also put a strain on its budget.

The Mountainland Continuum of Care, on the other hand, cited one of the biggest COVID-19 related challenges in the Utah, Wasatch and Summit county areas as providing transportation to COVID-19 positive individuals or for people waiting for testing.

“Some caseworkers are transporting in their personal vehicles, which really has been difficult with them taking it home to family, so we’ve addressed that in this funding proposal,” Heather Hogue, project manager and coordinator with the Mountainland Continuum of Care, told the state committee.

With so many people in the Weber County area experiencing homelessness for the first time, Melissa Freigang, chair designee for the Weber-Morgan Homeless Coordinating Committee, said one of the funding priorities in that area was for street outreach to help people get personal protective equipment and other needed items.

Of the $846,033 the area will receive, the state committee allocated around $178,000 for that purpose.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) The Fourth Street Clinic in Salt Lake City added a triage tent next to its building as a precaution against the coronavirus.

The Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness said outreach to the unsheltered homeless was also a funding priority, with coalition co-chair Rob Wesemann noting that such work is “absolutely required in the situation where we’re seeing an uptick in unsheltered homelessness.”

But despite the broad set of needs — from cleaning resources to personal protective gear and emergency shelter — Hill, of the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness, told The Tribune that one of the coalition’s main priorities for funding was rapid rehousing, with nearly $600,000 allocated for that purpose.

“The more people we can get out of shelter, off the street and into an actual housing situation, the better off everybody is,” she said.

In an effort to help people from becoming homeless in the first place, the State Homeless Coordinating Committee previously set aside around $3 million for rental assistance during the early days of the pandemic. And it still has about $1.5 million in federal funding left to be contracted out — money Davis said has been set aside with an eye toward future emergency shelter needs and eligible housing projects throughout the state.

“We do think as a state office that [there] is a need we will find moving forward and into the colder months,” Davis told the committee.

While the pandemic has had wide-reaching impacts on the state’s homelessness, she noted in an interview with The Tribune that it hasn’t hit Utah’s homeless as hard as several experts had originally feared.

Had it not been for federal, state and local resources, as well as the heightened collaboration of service providers across the state, “I don’t know that we’d be in the place we are,” she said.

“We were all really bracing ourselves for a pretty big impact on our homeless population and it’s been pretty amazing to see because we have resources, [and] the resources are being used well, that we have not had the problems that other communities throughout the nation have had,” Davis said.