More and more Utahns are being pushed into homelessness for the first time, according to state data published Thursday — and the likely culprit is the state’s deepening housing crisis.
There was a 10% increase in people newly homeless during fiscal 2022 — between Oct. 1, 2021, and Sept. 30 of last year — the Utah Office of Homeless Services found in its annual report. This is the second year in a row that metric has grown.
Last year had a slower growth rate than 2021′s 14%. And while that was encouraging to state officials, a continuing rise in first-time homelessness rates remains particularly worrying, said State Homeless Coordinator Wayne Niederhauser.
“Maybe it’s starting to peak out, but we also have concerns that with the cost of housing in Utah that we’re going to find more people in a homeless situation,” Niederhauser said.
Approximately 8,637 people became homeless for the first time in 2022, up from 7,816 in 2021 and 6,768 in 2020.
The average price of rent increased more in the two years following the start of the pandemic than in the prior decade, according to the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.
As the housing market became tighter and costs soared, approximately two-thirds of people entering emergency shelters, transitional housing or permanent housing projects in Utah over the last five years were experiencing homelessness for the first time.
Responding to worsening housing affordability in the Beehive State, the Utah Legislature put $55 million last year and another $50 million this year toward “deeply affordable housing.” Both of those allocations were much less than what Gov. Spencer Cox’s administration asked for — the governor called for $100 million this year — but Niederhauser said his office feels “so grateful.”
“We’re going to need to continue to get more appropriations for these purposes if we’re going get ahead of the game,” Niederhauser added.
How much more is needed to get a grip on rising homelessness? Niederhauser isn’t sure.
“It’s hard to quantify how much (funding) we’re going need going forward, ... but we do know that we could use a lot more rent support,” he said.
The Legislature this year put $5.5 million toward the Olene Walker Housing Loan Fund, which provides financial support for developing affordable housing options, including rental units, and $5 million toward attainable housing grants, which offer rent flow grants to applicants who provide deeply affordable housing.
A yearly boots-on-the-ground count of everyone who meets the definition of homelessness in a single night, called the Point-in-Time Count, revealed an additional “concerning increase.” On Jan. 25, professionals and volunteers counted 1,004 people who met the definition of chronic homelessness — a 96% increase from the 2019 Point-in-Time.
People who are experiencing chronic homelessness have been homeless for at least a year, either continuously or in four or more separate instances within the past three years, while also living with a disabling condition such as a physical disability, severe mental illness or substance use disorder, according to the report’s definition.
While the increase may have been due in part to more people participating in the Point-in-Time count, the annual report reads, it “underscores the challenges faced by the state’s homeless service system in linking individuals experiencing long-term homelessness with suitable housing and supportive services.”
Overall, this year’s Point-in-Time counted more people experiencing homelessness, and fiscal 2022 Utah saw over a thousand more people entering emergency shelters, transitional housing and permanent housing projects.
That aligns with a national trend of rising homelessness since 2017, according to data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. But Utah’s homelessness rate remains below the national average, with 11 individuals experiencing homelessness per 10,000 people, versus the national rate of 18 per 10,000 people.
“We still have it less common than it is in a lot of other places around the country, but it is something that we’re trying to keep a close eye on and see how we can reverse those,” said Joseph Jensen, data manager for the office.
One of the state’s successes in tackling homelessness reflected in the annual report is a three-day decrease in the amount of time people spend in an emergency shelter — now 65 days — after becoming homeless, and 93% of people enrolled in permanent housing remained housed in 2022.
However, Utah still has room to improve in both areas.
The average length of stay in a community shelter is over three times the high-performing community standard of 20 days set by HUD. And the percentage of individuals returning to homelessness within 24 months of obtaining permanent housing saw a slight increase from 29% in fiscal 2021 to just over 30%.
Key to improving most numbers, Niederhauser said, is having available, affordable housing.
That’s “Goal 1″ in the Utah Homelessness Council’s new strategic plan, which also includes objectives to increase supportive services, prevention efforts and more coordination between stakeholders.
“There are more people probably facing homelessness for the first time because housing is not affordable for them,” Niederhauser said. “That’s what we have to get our arms wrapped around. And we’re making some great progress, taken some giant steps over the last couple of years, but it will require a consistent effort.”