On a single January night earlier this year, a group of volunteers and service providers estimated 3,565 people were experiencing homelessness across Utah, about a third of them sleeping in their cars or camping outside.
That’s about 400 more homeless individuals than the state tallied in last year’s Point in Time Count, before COVID-19 threw the economy into turmoil and cost many people their livelihoods. But in releasing the newest figures Wednesday, state officials caution against comparing the two figures precisely because of the pandemic — which upended the methodology of the annual homeless census, along with everything else.
Instead, the new state report points to other ways of understanding how homelessness changed in the past year. For instance, people spent longer in emergency resource centers during the public health crisis, with shelter stays averaging 66 days during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. That’s an increase of 11 days from the prior year’s average and runs counter to the state’s goal of quickly moving people out of emergency shelter and into more permanent living situations.
It also echoes concerns raised by Wayne Niederhauser, the new state homelessness services coordinator, who worries that a lack of affordable housing is leaving people stuck in Salt Lake County’s resource centers and causing a capacity crunch in these facilities.
“It was one of the things I saw within a few days of me being in this job,” he said in an interview.
To chip away at this problem, he said, the state needs to focus on providing more housing that’s deeply affordable, or financially accessible to people earning less than 30% of the area median income. Right now, with the influx of federal pandemic aid, the state has an opportunity to make some progress on that front, Niederhauser continued.
“But supply is always going to be an issue,” he said. “Especially in Utah, where we have a great economy and people moving into our communities from out of state, gobbling up that supply.”
However, there are other signs that aspects of the state’s homeless services system are working, according to the report. First-time homelessness has dropped by 22% over the past four years, with 7,433 individuals reported in this category in the most recent one. And when Utahns do exit homelessness, many of them are remaining housed, the report found.
“The system is highly effective in keeping the most vulnerable in housing,” said the annual report, adding that 95% of residents in the state’s permanent housing projects stayed in housing across the year.
These apartments often offer heavily subsidized or no-cost rents to residents and also provide on-site case management and other support services.
“We do have a really great retention rate when we are focusing interventions for chronic homelessness in permanent housing,” said Tricia Davis, assistant director of the Office of Homeless Services.
However, that housing retention rate plummets to 30% for people who are exiting emergency shelters or transitional housing or who have been quickly rehoused, the state data shows. Davis and Niederhauser argue this highlights the need for ongoing case management that can follow people out of the resource centers and help them shift back into stable living situations.
“There, just to be perfectly honest, hasn’t been the capacity to provide the case management if people are not necessarily experiencing chronic homelessness,” Davis said.
The state’s annual report typically compares year-over-year results from the 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. But it discouraged readers from doing so this year because of COVID-driven changes to the count’s methodology.
To reduce interactions and lessen the risk of spreading the disease, the volunteers did not collect detailed demographic data for unsheltered individuals in this year’s Point in Time Count, according to the new report. And in Salt Lake County, where COVID-19 case counts were higher, outreach teams and volunteers simply reported the number of unsheltered individuals in selected census tracts and then extrapolated that data to other areas believed to have a similar population of people on the streets.
Even though it’s difficult to compare this year’s total to the one from 2020, Niederhauser and Davis say the count is still a useful snapshot of how many people were staying in emergency shelters or who were on the streets when the census took place in late January.
Overall, the report shows that the number of people who took shelter in Utah’s emergency resource centers and transitional housing dropped over the year, falling by about 15% to 10,846 people.
Davis and Niederhauser said it’s not clear if that decrease means the overall number of individuals experiencing homelessness decreased — or just that more people opted to camp outdoors to avoid living in close quarters during the pandemic.
Davis said this drop could also reflect the success of diversion programs, which seek to prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place by helping them explore options outside of emergency shelter. Sometimes, advocates help people find a safe spot with a family or friend, while in other cases, they connect people with financial assistance to move into their own permanent housing.
“That’s always going to be a better situation for somebody rather than entering into emergency shelter,” she said.
Correction • Wednesday, 5:51 p.m.: An earlier version of this story misstated the length of time it took for first-time homelessness to drop 22% in the state.