Analysis: Racial minorities are overrepresented in Salt Lake County homeless system

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Homeless individuals camp out on the streets of downtown Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020. Racial minorities are more likely to face homelessness in Salt Lake County than white people are, a new analysis of homeless system data shows.

Racial minorities are overrepresented in Salt Lake County’s homeless system as a proportion of their population, a new analysis of homeless data shows.

The disparities are largest among African Americans, who make up 12.6% of those receiving homeless services but only 2.2% of the county’s total population. That means there are 5.7 times more Black people in the homeless system than would be expected based on demographic data alone.

American Indian or Alaskan Natives also make up a larger percentage of those seeking homeless services than their share of the population. Overall, that demographic represents 1.4% of the county’s total population but 5.5% of its homeless — a number that’s 3.9 times larger than would be expected.

The findings of the annual racial disparities analysis, presented Wednesday to the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness, come from a comparison of the total number of people who are enrolled in homeless programs across different racial and ethnic groups to the total percentage of each population in the county according to the latest Census Bureau figures.

“What we saw is that we do have disparities,” Joseph Jensen, the state’s Homeless Management Information System administrator, explained during the virtual meeting. “Racial and ethnic minorities by and large make up larger percentages of those accessing homeless services ... than they do the community at large.”

Similar disparities are seen with Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander populations as well as with multiracial individuals and Hispanic or Latino communities, the data shows. At the same time, white, Asian and non-Latino individuals “each represent smaller percentages of those receiving homeless services than we would expect based on the county’s demographics,” the report states.

The data, which is based on the time period from July 1, 2019, to June 30, 2020, shows there are also disparities in the clients’ “exit destinations” from homelessness. Among the findings was that racial minorities make up a greater percentage of those exiting homelessness to “permanent destinations,” while non-Hispanic or Latino, Asian, Black, multi-racial, and white individuals make up a larger percentage of those continuing in homelessness.

More work needs to be done, Jensen said, to determine the reasons behind those findings — whether it could be a result of racial minorities accessing different types of services or if they’re staying in the system longer “so they’re being targeted for more intense intervention.”

Members of the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness said Wednesday that they plan to conduct a deeper dive into the data to better understand and address the systemic disparities within the homeless service system.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Homeless individuals camp out on the streets of downtown Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020. Racial minorities are more likely to face homelessness in Salt Lake County than white people are, a new analysis of homeless system data shows.

“We want to dive into that and see where there is more nuance and where we have the ability and the opportunity to make changes and target interventions to address these inequities,” Jean Hill, co-chair of the coalition, said during Wednesday’s meeting.

The racial disparity data, which comes amid a national reckoning about systemic racism in the United States, is not unique to the Salt Lake County area but rather a microcosm of the picture of homelessness across the country. National research has shown that most minority groups in the United States experience homelessness at higher rates than whites do — and that those disparities are particularly acute among Black Americans.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness explains that those disparities have roots dating back to “slavery to segregation” and the systematic denial of African Americans to equal rights and opportunities.

“The effects of long-standing discrimination linger and perpetuate disparities in poverty, housing, criminal justice, and health care, among other areas,” the organization notes on its website. “These disparities, in turn, can contribute to more African Americans experiencing homelessness.”

The alliance cites research that shows Blacks are 2.5 times more likely to live in poverty than whites, face discrimination when seeking rental housing and are denied more rental leases than white people are — all conditions that make this demographic more vulnerable to homelessness.

The incarceration rate for African Americans is also six times higher than the white incarceration rate, “which can keep people from successfully passing background checks needed to secure housing and employment,” the organization notes. And Blacks with serious mental illnesses are often untreated and are more likely to be uninsured, putting them at added risk for becoming unsheltered.

A picture of homelessness in Utah

The new data on the number of people of color experiencing homelessness in Salt Lake County comes at the same time the state released a new report Wednesday that provides a broader picture of Utah’s homeless population.

The data in the Annual Report on Homelessness comes in part from the state’s annual Point in Time Count, an annual recording of the number of homeless people across the state mandated by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. This year’s count began Jan. 23.

The enumeration is kind of like a condensed 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. 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.

Jensen cautioned the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness on Wednesday that these numbers are limited in scope and are not the “end-all be-all when it comes to homelessness data.” But the information collected can be useful in providing a snapshot in time of homelessness in the state and the demand on the system at large.

The data shows a 12% increase in the number of people counted as homeless in Utah on a single night this year compared to last year. Overall, volunteers counted 3,131 people across the state, 2,427 of whom were sheltered and 704 who were on the streets or in their cars.

Those increases may not reflect an actual increase in the number of people experiencing homeless in 2020 compared to 2019, Jensen said. Instead, it could be a reflection of the higher number of volunteers who took part in the Point in Time count this year.

“Because we did have that increased planning and participation, it is harder to tell how much of this is a genuine increase in unsheltered and homelessness overall versus how much is a more accurate count,” Jensen told the State Homeless Coordinating Committee. “We are hearing from places that they are seeing increases in homelessness so we believe there is some of that reflected here but we are also seeing the results of a better coordinated effort.”

Some 90% of the increase is attributable to the higher number of unsheltered people who were counted this year compared to last. While the number of sheltered individuals stayed largely stable, the 2020 count found 704 people living on the streets or in their cars across the state compared to 408 the year before.

That the number of unsheltered homeless increased is likely due in part to the timing of the Point in Time count, Jensen told the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness.

This year’s annual enumeration happened the last night the “warming center” at the Weigand Center in Salt Lake County was open. Because there were no beds at that overflow site, everyone there was considered unsheltered for the purposes of the count. Had the enumeration happened the next day, when the Sugar House Temporary Shelter opened, those same people would have been considered sheltered, Jensen said.

System performance data shows 62% of people in the system were experiencing homelessness for the first time — a reality that suggests “the need for identifying additional ways of preventing initial instances of homelessness,” the report states. In Salt Lake County, the point in time count of unaccompanied youth under the age of 24 increased by 18% from 2019 to 2020 while chronic homelessness increased by 14%.

Overall, the state’s data shows that 22% of Utah’s homeless are chronically homeless, 4% percent are veterans (down from 8% in 2019) and 23% are survivors of domestic violence. Another 20% have substance abuse disorders, while 31% have mental illnesses.