The number of Utahns experiencing homelessness for the first time rose last year, and state officials believe pandemic-fueled turmoil and surging housing prices may be to blame.
The Utah Office of Homeless Services’ annual report, released Wednesday, found the number of first-time homeless Utahns jumped by 14% from fiscal 2020 to 2021, representing the first time in five years that metric has spiked. (The federal fiscal year runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30.)
Joseph Jensen, data manager of the state office, said officials are studying the extent to which the pandemic and housing costs are affecting homelessness. Utah, he said, is still seeing more people access assistance programs — even if they aren’t experiencing homelessness.
“We have more Utahns that are kind of on that edge when it comes to housing stability and are reaching out for resources,” Jensen said. “And some of that is also hitting our homeless service system as well.”
The annual report considers data from three federal sources, including a report that examines how homelessness response systems perform, along with the annual point-in-time and housing inventory counts conducted each January.
The number of people experiencing homelessness in Utah grew from 3,131 in 2020 to 3,565 last year, according to the annual point-in-time count. The total dipped slightly this year to 3,556.
In federal fiscal 2021, however, 7,712 Utahns experienced homelessness for the first time, an increase of nearly 1,000 from the year before.
Jensen said Utah’s numbers track with trends across the country. The inflow of people experiencing homelessness, he said, is exceeding service providers’ ability to transition people out.
But Utah is seeing progress, or at least stabilization, in some key parts of its homeless response system.
After increases to the average length of stay in emergency shelters, those numbers essentially leveled off in the latest report.
“We still have people staying in those shelters longer than we would like,” Jensen said. “It’s higher than our goals, and it’s something that we’re working on, but we’re glad to see that we have slowed that increase that we were seeing before.”
Officials believe the stabilization is driven by improved coordination and programs that help move unsheltered residents from shelters to temporary housing and then to permanent housing.
Tricia Davis, assistant director of the Office of Homeless Services, said those resources are funded by federal pandemic relief dollars that will not be available next year. If the federal government does not continue to pay for such resources, she said, the state will need to come up with solutions.
The state also is enjoying success with people staying in long-term housing. According to the report, more than 95% enrolled in permanent housing projects either stayed where they were or exited to another form of long-term housing.
“We know if we can get people into housing with the appropriate services,” Jensen said, “that works.”
The state also witnessed a leveling off of people who return to homelessness. Even so, nearly 30% of people who left any of a variety of projects return to homelessness within two years, according to the report.
“So, still room to go there,” Jensen said. “But we’re happy that that metric is down from where it was a few years ago and that even as we were seeing more people come into the system, we didn’t really see a spike in our returns to homelessness.”
Moving forward, Davis said, the office will use its data to coordinate with other agencies and develop a more complete picture of homelessness in Utah.
Meanwhile, the Utah Homelessness Council is working on a strategic plan to continue addressing these issues across the state.
The Legislature infused $55 million this year into deeply affordable housing and services — less than half of what Utah Gov. Spencer Cox sought. Last week, the Salt Lake City Council approved a budget that includes more than $20 million for affordable and deeply affordable housing.