For added protection from the elements, Eustace Yazzie lined his worn-thin leather boots with plastic bags.
"Once it gets wet under your feet, they get raw," Yazzie said of the pounding his feet took trudging around Salt Lake City.
For the most part, Yazzie has lived on the streets since 1998. But on Friday, he wore a wide grin as he moved into his first apartment, the result of collaborative efforts between government agencies and area nonprofits.
Yazzie's poor health aggravated by the harsh realities of homelessness and constant food insecurity qualified him as "medically vulnerable" during a survey conducted late last week in Salt Lake City and throughout the country. The "100,000 Homes" survey aims to find and move 100,000 such fragile homeless Americans into housing by July 2014.
On Tuesday, advocates reported that Salt Lake City's survey was conducted with 105 people living on the streets and 573 in shelters. Their average age was 47, with the eldest being 76 years old. Of the total, 80 were military veterans.
Those considered medically vulnerable totaled 42 percent, or 285 people. Eighteen percent, or 122 people, suffered from mental and physical illnesses in combination with substance abuse. Close to one-third, or 207 individuals, said they'd been victims of violent attacks after becoming homeless, and one-fourth of respondents reported suffering a brain injury.
The data showed 684 of those surveyed reported emergency room visits in the past three months, which over a year's time would equate to 2,736 visits. At an average cost of $1,000 per visit, the annual costs add up to more than $2.7 million.
Kristy Chambers, executive director of the Fourth Street Clinic in Salt Lake City, was one of the many volunteers who ventured out at 4 a.m. last Thursday, Friday and Saturday to seek out individuals tucked away in tents and small camps.
Chambers said one woman who reported being assaulted was well-educated, in her 40s, and had been homeless for the past 18 months. She was camping with her little dog and a companion.
The life span of homeless individuals is cut short by up to 30 years, Chambers said, with their average life expectancy of age 48. Tuesday's event was held at Salt Lake City's Palmer Court, a 201-unit supportive housing development for chronically homeless individuals and families that opened in 2009.
For Yazzie, his newfound stability with housing means he can fill his thoughts with issues beyond mere survival. For years the native of Shiprock, N. M., searched out sleeping spots that would allow him to avoid shelters, where crowded conditions made them noisy and havens for the latest flu or cold germ.
"That's how I got another cold," Yazzie said of his recent shelter stays when the thermometer dipped into single digits.
Arthritis in his knees, ankles and wrists frequently plagues him and an auto-pedestrian accident caused him to lose sight in his left eye. Yazzie recently dropped 80 pounds and staff at the Fourth Street Clinic hope to schedule him for much-needed hernia surgery soon.
Yazzie's sense of humor appeared robust and intact as he joked with his case worker about the red car that came with the apartment. While the flashy car proved to be mythical, the small living unit came well-stocked with food, pots and pans, dishes, a brand-new bed, small sofa and TV, and basic necessities such as laundry detergent and shaving cream. A sign on the wall read "Welcome Home" and a cake graced a small table.
With agency resources are stretched thin, the Olene Walker Housing Loan Fund in conjunction with the Salt Lake County Housing Authority supplied the necessary dollars to quickly place Yazzie into available housing.
Mike Glenn, director of Housing Services for the state's Olene Walker Housing Loan Fund, was grateful to be on hand to witness Yazzie's move-in.
"Sometimes at the government level we don't have an opportunity to connect back down to the people who are actually served," Glenn said. "It's great to see a smile on someone's face."
Salt Lake City survey results:
The national 100,000 Homes survey evaluates people who have been homeless for six months or longer according to eight vulnerability risk factors.
In Salt Lake City:
105 • individuals living on the streets agreed to participate
573 • sheltered individuals agreed to participate
Of those surveyed:
• 684 reported ER visits in the past three months
• 285 qualified as medically vulnerable
• 224 reported mental health needs
• 398 struggled with substance abuse
• 156 had both mental health and substance abuse issues
• 497 reported previous jail stays
• 146 reported prison incarceration