Survey aims to count entire Utah homeless population

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brikel Weeks, left, and Amanda Christensen from Volunteers of America approach a campsite at Liberty Park on Jan. 23, 2020, as they participate in an effort to count the number of unsheltered people living in Salt Lake County.

Jeremy Youngren’s lost his home, cat and nearly everything he owned when his house burned to the ground in 2018 in the Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif., while he was having open-heart surgery some 15 miles away. It was the nation’s deadliest blaze in more than a century.

Now homeless, Youngren spends most of his nights in a parking lot near the tennis courts in Salt Lake City’s Liberty Park, where the temperatures are so cold his breath fogs up the windows of his car.

“It’s not too bad,” he tells outreach workers as he takes a survey with representatives from Volunteers of America Utah on Thursday in the early hours of the morning. “Anything’s better than Paradise.”

Youngren, 49, is with three others in the car. But only he and a man from Draper who identifies himself as Doug are willing to participate in the Point in Time Count, a statewide effort to gain demographic information on people experiencing homelessness.

The annual count, which began Thursday, is mandated by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development for funding of local and state homeless services. It’s kind of like a census for the unsheltered population, with volunteers seeking data on each person’s age, gender, general health and the amount of time they’ve been homeless.

[Read more: Catholic Community Services won’t renew its contract this summer to operate one of three new homeless resource centers]

Surveyors also ask respondents if they are veterans or victims of domestic abuse and about any diseases and addictions they might have — questions designed to help them understand the often complex conditions that led someone to become homeless and what would help someone move off the streets.

“It’s what brings federal funding to the state,” Amanda Christensen, program director of the VOA’s homeless outreach program, said of the count. But it also “informs programming and kind of how we as a community need to meet those needs.”

Around 300 trained volunteers, including a number of public officials like Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, will continue to scour the state and Salt Lake Valley looking for people experiencing homelessness each morning from 4 a.m. to 6 a.m. through Saturday. The data they gather will be compiled and made public in several months.

Christensen and Brikel Weeks, a VOA caseworker, and Sue Ativalu, the organization’s division director of adult homeless services, were tasked Thursday with finding unsheltered people in census tract 23, which spans Liberty Park down to State Street.

Inside the park, the team counted 10 people total, including Youngren and the three others in his car.

For the VOA, the annual Point in Time count provides yet another opportunity to provide any basic items people experiencing homelessness need and to inform them about resources they may not be aware of, from housing to medical and mental health services.

“We connect with people where they’re at in the community and build rapport so we can connect them with long-term resources,” Christensen said.

On Thursday, Youngren and the others in his car gratefully took socks, hand warmers, gloves and sleeping bags, as well as information about other services they may be eligible for.

But not everyone the team encountered was interested in taking the survey or in accessing resources.

One man, who was sleeping under a tarp under the gazebo at Liberty Park, said he didn’t want to participate in the Point in Time count but asked for water. Later, when the team came back with three bottles, they asked if they could leave a card with more information about services.

“Don’t bother,” he called out from inside his tarp.

Across the state of Utah, there were 2,798 people counted during last year’s Point in Time Count — 408 of them unsheltered. The state’s Homeless Management Information System, however, indicates there were more like 14,437 people who experienced homelessness in 2019.

Christensen acknowledges that the Point in Time Count is “flawed" and provides only a snapshot in time, due to both limited volunteer resources and because many people experiencing homelessness intentionally choose to sleep in hard-to-find places.

“We’re looking for people in nontraditional settings,” she said.

But with 300 volunteers this year — the highest in recent years — it may be easier to get a more accurate count. In Salt Lake County, volunteers will scour around 100 census tracts, according to Rob Wesemann, executive director of the Utah chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. On Thursday around 6 a.m., he said the volunteers had counted around 200 people.

As the homeless outreach team left the parking lot where Youngren and the others were camped out, Weeks leaves them her card and promises to stay in touch.

“If there’s any other supplies you guys can think of you need — clothes, food, anything like that — if you want to send me an email I can get that over,” she says.

“I appreciate this,” Youngren says as he gets back in the car and closes the door. “This will help.”