Jean Welch Hill: Work against homelessness has had an eventful year

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tammy, who said that she's been homeless for the past 13 years, was pushing her shopping cart up a walkway in Sugar House when she met with volunteers who were counting homeless people for the annual Point In Time survey in Salt Lake City at 5 a.m. Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018.

The first year of our new homeless resource centers has been eventful, to put it mildly. The past year saw a series of unfortunate events, from delays in opening the centers to pandemic.

Through our strong partnerships within the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness, however, we were able to address the unexpected more quickly and with better outcomes than might have been the case if we were still following old models.

As the final resource center opened, Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County, the state, providers and clients came together to find solutions for people caught in the cold and needing winter overflow shelter. A much improved Point in Time count in January located unsheltered individuals across the county. Though not ideal, many found a place to stay out of the elements at the warming station in the Weigand Homeless Resource Center. That short-term solution provided coalition members a much needed moment to locate, fund and staff the Sugar House Temporary Shelter for overnight sleeping.

Partners met multiple times every week throughout the winter months to ensure unsheltered people experiencing homelessness found safe shelter and to serve the increasing numbers of both sheltered and unsheltered individuals. We continue those meetings now in anticipation of the coming winter, with the advantage of having the connections across our community in place to plan ahead.

Of course, just when we were starting to feel some confidence in our 2019-20 winter overflow efforts, COVID-19 struck.

Across the system, partners recognized that one case in a congregate living situation could rapidly devastate the homeless community. As the normal day refuges for people experiencing homelessness, such as libraries, closed, eliminating not only safe spaces to spend the day, but also access to restrooms and drinking fountains, partners across the Coalition responded.

The success of those responses is astonishing – COVID-19 cases among the homeless population in Salt Lake County have remained consistently below 2 percent. This is the result of incredibly hard work by the staff at each homeless resource center in partnership with Fourth Street Clinic, state and county health departments and the guests at the centers.

There is still much work to do. The pandemic and winter challenges delayed our longer-term work on our strategic plan and prevention efforts. The impacts of COVID-19 on our economy decimated what little reasonably attainable housing existed previously and we may find even more people in need as eviction moratoriums and jobless benefits run out.

The Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness is working to identify winter overflow locations now so we are able to plan for the requirements of social distancing and disinfection that we expect will be needed for the foreseeable future. We are also working to identify alternative housing options that might help move people out of homelessness more quickly.

All of this work is made possible by the collaborative efforts of government, private businesses, non-profit providers and other entities who have joined together as the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness.

We are also not alone in addressing homelessness in our state. Under the direction of the State Homeless Coordinating Committee, the Department of Workforce Services created the Utah Homelessness Network, which brings together all of the coalitions (though not all are formally termed as such) across our 29 counties, working to house the most vulnerable in our state and align our limited funding.

Each of the coalitions of providers and local governments suffer from similar barriers — lack of funding, overworked staffs, growing need. But our mutual commitment to making episodes of homelessness brief, rare and non-recurring is strong, and data-informed.

The homeless services system across Utah is a work in progress. But never have we been more coordinated, more collaborative, or more committed to successfully housing individuals and families for the long term.

Jean Hill

Jean Welch Hill is co-chair of the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness.