Volunteers of the local Point-In-Time count of individuals dealing with homelessness observed a record number in 2020. Though the number of confirmed unsheltered individuals was down according to the count this year, when combined with those observed and suspected, the 2021 count could indicate an even higher number.
In accordance with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 60 volunteers in the Bear River area traveled through the community, starting at 4 a.m. on Jan. 28 to provide “state and local governments a snapshot of the extent of homelessness in communities across the state,” according to a press release from the Bear River Local Homeless Coordinating Committee.
Compared to 2020’s total of 57 unsheltered individuals, volunteers surveyed and confirmed 34 homeless individuals and observed 28 additional suspected cases — which would indicate the highest count for the area, so far.
Though homelessness is not as visible in Northern Utah as it is in metropolitan areas like Salt Lake City, Jess Lucero, the PIT Count lead and associate professor of social work at Utah State University, said “it’s no less traumatic for those who experience it,” in a press release about the count.
Four individuals were in Box Elder County, with the vast majority in Cache County.
And, like in other years, Lucero suspects the count is an underestimate.
“There has been a real increase in couch-surfing and doubling up due to the pandemic, plus an impossibly tight rental market,” she told The Herald Journal. “Although these folks are not counted in the PIT.”
Phil Redlinger, the CEO of the newly launched Dan Gyllenskog Veterans Resource Center of the Cache Valley Veterans Association, agreed. Redlinger has in years past served as the PIT count lead.
“It’s hard to tell,” he said. “You know the LDS church might have some people in a hotel, but how would we know and include them in the count?”
The surveys conducted with individuals were shortened due to the pandemic, as was the additional question of whether COVID-19 had caused their current situation. For seven individuals, it had.
Additionally, COVID-19 has pushed the area’s existing shelters to the max.
For example, Citizens Against Physical and Sexual Abuse — the local domestic violence and rape crisis center — saw a 25% increase in individuals needing emergency shelter from March to November of 2020 compared to the previous year, and a 35% increase in the average length of stay.
At the time of the PIT count, there were eight households (or 16 individuals) in the emergency shelter, and another 61 (40 children and 21 adults) in the program’s transitional housing, “which is used to help people get back on their feet,” according to JeNae Fraughton, with CAPSA.
“Most people, when they hear about homelessness, they don’t realize one of leading factors of experiencing homelessness — especially for women and children — is experiencing domestic violence,” said Jill Anderson, CAPSA’s executive director. “In Utah, 63% of women and children experiencing homelessness are in that situation because of domestic violence.”
Similarly, New Hope Crisis Center, in Brigham City, was nearly at capacity and housed 17 individuals at the time of the count.
“We saw a slight increase in people needing our services,” said Michael Scott, “but what we’re seeing is more severity, more violent cases.”
Another demographic that was more likely to suffer from homelessness — even pre-pandemic — is the veteran population. According to HUD’s 2019 PIT count report, there are around 40,000 vets experiencing homelesses on any given day.
Redlinger said the CVVA shelter was serving nine families due to COVID-19 as well as three veterans at the time of the 2021 PIT count.
He added that affordable housing is a huge factor in the growing need.
“We need more housing,” he said. “We were very fortunate to place two of our folks into housing, but there’s just not enough affordable housing in Cache Valley. Helping people with emergency shelters and putting them in hotels is great, but we don’t have enough affordable housing to get them out of shelters.”
In the press release sent by the LHCC, Lucero said “it’s important to emphasize that those who experience homelessness in our community are our friends and neighbors.”
“One financial setback (for) these low income households can contribute to a domino effect that leads to eviction or loss of housing,” the release states. “And getting back into housing after experiencing homelessness is nearly impossible given the housing pinch we’re in.”
The PIT Count numbers released have yet to be verified by the state. The full HUD report and final count will be released in August 2021.