The rate of homelessness in Weber County is proportionately higher than in Salt Lake County and has increased at much higher rate than its larger southern neighbor since 2014, according to a new report commissioned by the Weber Housing Authority.
Local leaders identify several reasons for that, from rising housing prices to increased movement among people experiencing homelessness thought to be due to Operation Rio Grande in Salt Lake City. The report calls for several improvements to homelessness strategy in Weber County to “reverse concerning trends.”
“We’re not there yet, but we will be in a crisis if we don’t address this immediately,” Andi Beadles, executive director of the Weber Housing Authority, said in response to the report.
With data to back up the homeless population increases that many local leaders have noticed anecdotally, they’re now hoping Weber County officials gain more clout in conversations that have often been focused on Salt Lake County.
“The changes that are being made in the homeless systems in Salt Lake have a direct impact on our systems in Weber County and across the state,” Beadles said. “It has a direct impact, but I do think we’re not included in the conversations and we’re not included in the decision-making — even though it affects our systems dramatically.”
During the Weber Point in Time count (an annual enumeration of the county’s sheltered and unsheltered homeless population) in January 2018, the Local Homeless Coordinating Committee identified 376 individuals on a single night — a 48% jump from the 254 counted in January 2014, according to the study.
That means Weber County now hosts 13% to 16% of the state’s homeless population, according to the study. But it received just 8.9% of state homeless funding for the fiscal year 2019. That percentage decreased with 2020 appropriations, Beadles said.
A large share of camping appears to be centralized in Ogden, the county’s biggest population center at about 91,000 and the state’s seventh largest.
“That has just blown up,” said Ward Ogden, the city’s community development manager.
The 135-page report and strategic plan, prepared by consultant Ashley Barker Tolman Shuler and released in full earlier this month after more than a year of study, was created with the input of local service providers, governments and people with personal experience of homelessness, both past and present.
It offers a number of recommendations for reducing homelessness in the area, including improvements of system planning, a “housing first” approach and more investment to have data-driven services. All of that is meant to make homelessness “rare,” “brief” and “non-occurring.”
“Such a vision requires an investment of resources and a new way of thinking,” the report states. “It is not sufficient to assume prior modes of operation can change without adequate provision of training, community leadership, backbone support, and funding.”
The plan also recommends hiring a homeless services system coordinator to oversee the implementation of the strategic plan and to work with various stakeholders.
Weber County Commissioner Gage Froerer said homelessness and affordable housing are top of mind as the county moves forward with its economic development plans, and he believes the data from this study will be helpful in reducing homelessness.
“I can’t say that there’s any magic solution out there that we have,” he said. “We’re just going to have to use some government resources and hopefully use a lot of our nonprofits that are dealing with homelessness and intergenerational poverty right now to at least reduce this. I don’t see this going away any time in the near future.”
Part of the equation also has to be an increased focus on affordable housing, the report states — an issue that has been identified across the state.
About 44.2 percent of tenants in Weber County are rent burdened, and “the average head of household renter would need to work 1.5 full-time jobs to cover housing expenses for a two-bedroom unit in Weber County,” the report states, leaving residents more vulnerable to homelessness. And with the rent growth rate in the area increasing as the income growth rate decreases, the renter burden is expected only to rise.
The report comes amid an increased focus on homelessness across the state, and as Salt Lake County leaders brace for major changes to homeless services there, with the planned closure of the main shelter in downtown Salt Lake City, and the opening of three smaller Homeless Resource Centers before the fall.
Those centers are expected to operate differently than the emergency shelter, servicing specific populations and providing access to health services, a full mobile medical clinic and on-site case managers.
It’s unclear how those changes could affect Weber County. But moving forward, Froerer said he hopes leaders there will have more of a voice in conversations surrounding homelessness both in Salt Lake County and across the state.
“I don’t think there’s any question that this homelessness issue is a statewide issue,” he said. “We need to deal with it through the entire state — and we need to make sure the resources available out there are divided equally.”
Clarification: The emergency homeless shelter in downtown Salt Lake City is scheduled to shut down later this year. The Road Home, a service provider and shelter operator, is continuing to operate and will oversee one of the planned resource centers.