Every year, communities that receive federal funding to combat homelessness are required to count all of their homeless residents. Salt Lake County’s count for this year took place Jan. 24-27, but the results are not yet available to the public. In the 2017 count, 1,886 people were found in a shelter or other residential facility for homeless people and 161 people were found sleeping outdoors.
This means that in the coldest month of the year, about 8 percent of the homeless people in our community were sleeping outdoors. This is significantly better than the national average, about 35 percent, and nowhere close to as bad as the worst city in the country, Fresno, Calif., where 75.8 percent of the homeless population does not have a place to sleep indoors.
If things got as bad here as the national average, then there would be 716 people sleeping outdoors in Salt Lake County during the winter. That is almost one homeless person for every square mile in the county that is not part of the Great Salt Lake. If things got as bad in Salt Lake County as they are in Fresno, then we would have 1,552 people sleeping on our streets, parks and elsewhere.
Is that where we are headed? The two biggest causes of increasing homelessness in Salt Lake County are population growth and rising rents. Between 2010 and 2017, the population in Salt Lake County grew by 10.3 percent, reaching an estimated total of 1,121,354 people. By 2030, the population in the county is expected to grow by another 185,000 people.
At the same time our population is growing, thousands of formerly affordable apartments are no longer affordable to low-wage workers. Between 2005 and 2015, the number of affordable apartments in Salt Lake County decreased by over 1,000 each year. In 2016 and 2017 this trend accelerated. In those two years, more than 6,000 apartments were bought in Salt Lake City with financing that will lead to the rent being increased.
There is research showing a direct correlation between rent increases of 5 percent and increased homelessness. That correlation is intensified when rents are increased by 25 percent.
This is why it is so alarming that elected officials are mandating the closure of the homeless shelter in downtown Salt Lake City take place one year from now, on July 1, 2019. These same elected officials point at the new shelters that are being built and say that the fact they will have 400 less beds is not important because they will be smaller and so the people they serve will get more individualized care and be homeless for a shorter period of time.
This has not been the case with our new family shelter in Midvale. That facility is complete and is the only shelter we have for families. It is smaller than the downtown shelter and yet the number of families that are remaining homeless for more than nine months is increasing because there is no housing to move families out of the shelter into.
Because more families are staying in shelter longer than in the past, we are approaching the day when we will not have shelter options for all homeless children in Salt Lake County.
There is every reason to believe that the new shelters for homeless men and women will face the same problems when they are opened next year. If we force 400 human beings to sleep outdoors in the winter of 2019, we will be taking a big step toward becoming like Fresno.
If we do that, how will we live with ourselves?
Bill Tibbitts is associate director of the Crossroads Urban Center in Salt Lake City.