• Wed. Nov 30th, 2022

How will Salt Lake City handle the rise of homeless camps amid growing need?

ByDebra J. Aguilar

Aug 20, 2022

Brandie Smith packs her belongings as backhoes pick up remains from homeless camps and load them into dump trucks near the Rio Grande Depot in Salt Lake City on April 1, 2021. As the number of homeless camps Citywide shelter is on the rise, the Salt Lake City Council wonders what more can be done as it attempts a “Herculean lift” amid increased need. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

Estimated reading time: 7-8 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — With the number of homeless encampments across the city on the rise, the Salt Lake City Council is wondering what more can be done as it attempts a “Herculean lift” amidst… an increased need.

The issue of homelessness is not new to Salt Lake City, but its visibility seems to be growing along with the city. A 2022 homelessness report from the Utah Department of Workforce Services Office of Homeless Services found that the homeless population was growing, with the the number of Utahns homeless for the first time increases by 14% from 2020 to 2021.

There are many possible factors for the increase – soaring housing costs, rising rents, COVID-19 and its economic impact. As needs have grown, state funding has increased in recent years, with funds allocated to address issues such as affordable housing.

Homelessness resources, proposed plans and reports have become a regular topic in Salt Lake City Council business sessions and meetings. Last year, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall appointed former council member Andrew Johnston as director of homelessness policy and outreach.

Johnston coordinates homeless services and resources with providers and key stakeholders, presenting regular updates to the board. Here’s what was revealed in Johnston’s update to the board during a Tuesday business session and the questions the board had.

How big is the need?

The number of Utahns homeless for the first time isn’t the only metric on the rise — the state report also found that the total number of homeless people, both unsheltered and sheltered, has increased in the annual statement.

Point-in-time counting is a measurement method that meets the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s definition of literal homelessness in a geographic area in a single night.

Literal homelessness is defined by HUD as living in a:

  • Emergency shelter, including domestic violence service providers
  • Transitional housing, including domestic violence service providers
  • A place not intended for human habitation (such as in a vehicle or city park)

Yet as needs have grown, accommodation capacities have remained virtually the same. Homeless resource centers have continued to see high occupancy rates in recent months, with the most recent data putting most centers at around 96% capacity. Johnston noted increasing encampments along the Jordan River and in some city parks.

“I recognize that as a city we are doing a Herculean lift here, and I hope everyone follows suit and buys in so that humanity here is centered and we find good solutions to that.” said Councilwoman Victoria Petro-Eschler.

While winter may seem a long way off amid the record temperatures and sweltering heat, fall is fast approaching and no official plans for temporary overflow shelters have been released. Johnston estimated the number of beds needed in Salt Lake County to be about 1,700, with year-round resource centers currently filling 1,300.

The scramble of municipal leaders and resource providers to find temporary winter overflow shelter is not new. A bill passed in the 2022 legislative session, HB440, requires cities to come together and submit a plan for summer and winter overflows to the Office of Homeless Services. Failing to submit a plan, or if a plan is insufficient, then the state would have the option of adapting the capacity of existing resource centers and using state-owned facilities in the event of an overflow.

As the need persists, so does the question of where the remaining beds will come from. The council wondered if state or county support could help the city meet the growing demand.

“We talk a lot about our need to collaborate with the state and our local coalition for a lot of good reasons, but we’re the only city I know locally that offers this number of services across the full continuum based on best practices,” said said Johnston. “It’s not enough, we know it’s not enough. But that framework and the bones are there for a system that could work very, very well as we continue to invest and work hard for it.”

What is done and does it work?

As homeless resource centers continue to see high occupancy rates, some board members questioned whether the numbers truly reflect need.

“We have hundreds of people on the street. Obviously there is a need, but maybe there isn’t,” said city councilor Alejandro Puy. “Maybe there are people who don’t want it or don’t want it, right?”

The question highlights the complexities of addressing homelessness, including those who may or may not consider themselves unprotected.

“Some people, when the VOA outreach teams engage with them, do not consider themselves homeless in any way. And that is their right because we have a large population in this country who live in vehicles – RV parks, itinerant, seasonal workers,” Johnston said. “And so it’s kind of a very nuanced thing about how someone self-identifies what they see as their needs or what that he would like.”

To better understand people who may be homeless and their direct needs, Johnston stressed the importance of ongoing relationships and contact through rapid response and outreach teams.

“One of the hardest things, sometimes, for cities that do a lot of housing work is to connect people who are unprotected to actual housing. It seems intuitive that people just circulate that way, but that doesn’t always work that way,” replied Johnston.

“I think if you look at the number of people who are not housed, we know there are a lot of them and we know we’ve filled motel rooms over the last few years with hundreds,” he said. added.

Using the motels has become complicated, with many of the operators the city has used in the past selling the buildings. Some motels that have been used during the COVID-19 pandemic may continue to operate thanks to Volunteers of America staff. Staffing shortages and a dwindling supply of motels have had an impact.

The limited number of motel beds can currently be used to house those awaiting vouchers or about to receive housing, Johnston said. Providing a number of temporary housing options – a group shelter or even a motel – helps meet different needs. A person living in an RV or car may be reluctant to group shelter, but may stay in a motel because their vehicle will be nearby, he added.

He noted the frustration of city officials and citizens with delayed responses to encampments or homelessness issues, while emphasizing the importance of a thoughtful response.

“That’s how it should work. When you resolve a camp, you resolve it into shelter housing. And this rapid response team is our proactive approach as we continue to work on housing and other interventions to make it work,” Johnston said.

He also encouraged the use of SLC-Mobile application to inform city officials and camp leaders. Additional staff have been hired to help manage the number of requests sent through the app to increase response time. The app received about 6,000 requests last year and was run by a part-time employee.

To address staffing issues among homeless providers, councilor Ana Valdemoros suggested relying on those with first-hand experience.

“We have the resources within the homeless community. Those are a bit ahead or more able to work, maybe those are the ones we employ, so they can help because they already have that knowledge of the community,” she said.

Johnston acknowledged the possibility, adding that programs were in place and could be strengthened.

Future plans

Although the city has many programs and approaches to homelessness, council members wondered if all the resources were effective.

“We have a lot of programs going on…can we make sure we’re doing it effectively and efficiently?” asked Councilwoman Amy Fowler. “So that we’re not just spinning our wheels? Because I think we’ve underutilized some of the teams and programs that are already there to do the job.”

To help determine the effectiveness of the programs, the board requested information on hotel vouchers and financial forecasts to plan future programs. Johnston also noted that future proposals and plans would arrive in the next six to nine months as state homelessness officials allocate funds granted in the recent legislative session and the fiscal year 2022 budget.

“You look at it from all angles,” Fowler told Johnston. “It’s hard to know people need help and we don’t know how to help them. We’re doing everything we can on all sides.”

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Ashley Fredde covers social services, minority communities and women’s issues for KSL.com. She also enjoys reporting on arts, culture and entertainment news. She graduated from the University of Arizona.

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