A statewide effort to get chronically homeless people off the streets and into supported housing continues to make progress, but officials on Mondayannounced the number of Utahns who experienced periodic homelessness reached an all-time high this winter.
Volunteers and outreach workers counted 3,052 people in shelters and another 475 on the streets in the statewide Point In Time annual survey that began Jan. 26 and extended over five days to ensure as complete a tally as possible. On an annualized basis, state officials project that 16,642 people experienced an episode of homelessness between January 2011 and January 2012, an increase of 13 percent.
Gordon Walker, director of the Division of Housing and Community Development, said Monday during a press conference that the increase was directly related to the weak economy and the end of a federal stimulus housing fund aimed at getting people out of shelters and into their own homes as quickly as possible.
"Overall homelessness is a function of the economy," Walker said. "No one wants to be homeless."
The survey found one bright spot as the number of chronically homeless people declined for the seventh consecutive year. The new annualized count estimated 542 people were chronically homeless, a decrease of 9 percent compared to 2011. The actual count was 331 individuals. Since 2005, when the state launched its Housing First initiative targeting people who are chronically homeless with programs offering permanent housing and support services, the number of chronically homeless people has fallen by 72 percent.
"It is less expensive for society to house these individuals than it is to have them on the street," Walker said.
Lt. Gov. Greg Bell, chairman of the State Homeless Coordinating Committee, said the "one stop, one shop set of services" provided through the Housing First initiative is making a difference in the lives of chronically homeless people, nearly all of whom live along the Wasatch Front.
"The real success has been the intermingling, not only of housing and lodging, but creating a spectrum of housing and integrating that with social and human services," Bell said.
This year, homeless service providers were required to count only people staying in shelters, churches, jails and soup kitchens, but Utah also surveyed those living in camps, parks, on the street and in other places not meant for habitation. The count is used to track trends and as a basis for federal grant allocations. Utah also uses the numbers to gauge success of the state's 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness, a goal it hopes to accomplish by 2015.
"If, for some reason, we didn't hit that date, we've had terrific success in decreasing chronic homelessness and we are the only state that is doing this," Walker said.
While shelter providers handled counts for their facilities, volunteers and outreach workers supervised by Volunteers of America, Utah conducted individual, on-the-street interviews using brightly colored purple forms. Participants were asked where they spent the night on Jan. 25 and how long they'd been homeless; this year, surveyors also asked questions about mental health, physical disabilities, substance abuse, veteran's status and whether they'd experienced domestic violence recently.
The number of homeless veterans who comprise 14 percent of the total count remained unchanged from last year.
"Utah is behind the rest of the country in the percentage of homeless vets," said Todd Hansen of the state's Department of Veteran Affairs. Later this year, a new transitional shelter for homeless veterans will open on the Veteran's Hospital campus. Currently, just 33 veterans are not in some type of sheltered housing or program.
But more people up 36 percent reported having experienced domestic violence. More detailed information about that finding won't be available until later this year.
Matt Minkevitch, director of The Road Home, the state's largest shelter, said affordable housing is the most important tool for reducing homelessness and support services help keep people from relying on shelters as a "permanent housing destination." The success of getting people who are chronically homeless into supported housing has reduced pressure on shelters, which enable the facilities to handle the increase in episodic homelessness.
"In the state of Utah, no one needs to be without a bed on any particular night," Walker said. "Because of the chronic homelessness initiatives, there is now excess capacity in the emergency shelter system so that any one who chooses to do so may be housed on an single night."
Pamela Atkinson, a homeless advocate, said outreach workers are hoping "peer pressure" will convince more of those who are chronically homeless to participate in supported housing programs.
"They are now telling their friends that are still out on the streets, 'This works, come in and join us,'" she said. But people have to make that decision themselves, she added.
"We don't push and push and push them," Atkinson said. "We make it clear the choice is there, we're there to help them and we'll do anything at all in order to get them off the streets and into a place where they are safe."