Utah report shows increase in homelessness due to lack of housing, pandemic concerns

ST. GEORGE — An annual report on homelessness in Utah released last month shows some hits and misses in the state’s effort to help those in-need. While success was found in reducing cases of recurring homelessness over a four-year span, a goal to make the duration of homeless brief failed as the average time spent in a homeless shelter rose by nearly 11 days in 2020.

Stock photo, St. George News

Utah’s Annual Report on Homelessness for 2021 was released last month by the Utah Department of Workforce Services and gives a general breakdown on what homelessness looks like in the state compared to one to four years ago.

The average stay for a homeless individual in Utah between 2017-19 was around 55 days. In 2020, that catapulted to nearly 66 days, according to the report. State officials had made a goal to reduce that to an average of 50 days or less.

“This reflects a need for more deeply affordable housing that individuals and families experiencing homeless can access,” the report states. “It is also likely a result of pandemic impacts on other safe housing options available to individuals and families in emergency shelters.”

In Washington County, the average amount of days spent in a shelter or transitional housing was 28 days in 2018, up to 70 days in 2019, and then down to 27 days in 2020, according to the report.

Kristin Clark, operations director for the Switchpoint Community Resource Center in St. George, said a reason for the jump in 2019 was due to many people coming to St. George, yet not being able to find a place to live.

“People just couldn’t find a home,” Clark said.

Iron County saw a similar spike in shelter stays as the average stay went from 14 days to 61 day between 2018-19, then down to 29 days in 2020.

Issues of housing

In this file photo, apartments are being built in Washington City, Feb. 18. 2020 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

Issues of affordable housing, also referred to as attainable housing in some circles, has been plaguing the rental and first-time home buyer market for many years now. In 2016, the average rent for a one bed, one bath apartment in Washington County was $690, according to a market report from NAI Excel. In the real estate company’s 2021 report, the average rent for the same unit has risen over $1,100.

“We can’t find a rent that’s considered reasonable,” Clark said. “It’s very, very frustrating.”

While Switchpoint has been able to secure housing funding through a permanent supportive housing grant, and helped place a handful of people so far, challenges remain.

There’s a high need for both families and single men for housing, she said, though noted families with children tend to have better luck finding that housing than the single men do, particularly if they do not have the best of backgrounds.

Trying to convince a landlord to give a potential ex-felon who has also saved up for the deposit and rent a chance, versus other would-be renters that appear more favorable isn’t easy, Clark said.

Rising home prices also keep current renters, who may have otherwise been able to buy and move out, in place, compounds the issue by keeping those rental units full and unavailable for others.

In this file photo, Kristen Clark, Switchpoint’s operations manager, speaks to how the current COVID-19 pandemic is impacting Switchpoint’s food pantry and volunteer availability, St. George, Utah, March 18, 2020 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

“You’ve got a whole generation of new home buyers that are not going to be able to get into a home. They’re going to have to stay put,” Clark said. “It set’s up a roadblock. There’s nobody leaving for others to come in.”

Switchpoint has worked to help alleviate the housing issue in Washington County with the building of the RiverWalk Village apartments that opened last year and quickly filled up. Still, the need for more housing remains high.

An option that Clark said is being explored is converting some motels into housing units, as well as the creation of areas where tiny-homes may be set up in the future.

Some numbers go down while others go up

Though the average period of homelessness increased, the state saw a drop in other numbers, according to the report.

Those who became homeless in Utah for the first time dropped 21% (9,493 to 7,433) between 2017-2020. Iron County saw a drop of 362 to 271 between 2018-20. However, these numbers saw an increase in Washington County for the same period as they went from 765 in 2018 to 813 in 2020.

Recurring cases of homelessness between 2017 and 2020 also fell by 6%. This was a goal the state achieved as the rate dropped from 35% to 29% during that time.

Stock image | Photo from Pixabay, St. George News

“The system is highly effective in keeping the most vulnerable in housing. In (Fiscal Year 2020), 95% of individuals enrolled in permanent housing projects, other than rapid re-housing, either exited to or retained their permanent housing, an improvement from 93% reported in FFY19,” the report states.

Iron County saw successful permanent housing outcomes fluctuate between 2018 and 2020. In 2018, there was a 40% success rate that went up to 64% in 2019, then down to 48% in 2020. Returns to homelessness during this time rose from 22% to 23%.

Washington County saw the number of individuals placed in housing go from 37% to 30% from 2018-20. However, retention of permanent housing rose from 86% to 96% over the same period. Returns to homelessness over those two yeas also fell from 24% to 18%

“The state is trying their best to do right by the homeless population,” Clark said.

Point-in-Time count

The annual Point-In-Time count, a national effort held in January to see how many people are experiencing homelessness over a single night, came with a disclaimer this year. Due to safety precautions and concerns raised by the COVID-19 pandemic, the numbers of this year’s PIT count may not be wholly accurate, the report states.

“The 2021 unsheltered count was conducted in a different way than in previous years in order to protect the health and safety of volunteers and individuals experiencing homelessness during the pandemic,” the report reads. “This change in methodology makes it difficult to accurately compare the 2021 unsheltered and total counts with previous years. The 2021 Pandemic PIT reported 3,565 Utahns experiencing homelessness, with 2,410 sheltered and 1,155 unsheltered.”

In this file photo, a previously homeless man assisted by the Point-in-Time project of the Volunteer Center of Washington County, St. George, Utah, Feb. 11, 2014 | Photo by Natalie Barrett, St. George News

“Unsheltered” means those people who may be sleeping on the street, in a car or some other place not meant for human habitation.

Switchpoint personnel and volunteers conducted PIT counts over multiple days this year, Clark said, adding to the change in how the count is usually done.

Iron County’s PIT numbers for 2021 showed 53 sheltered individuals and 20 unsheltered. The 2020 count showed 44 sheltered and 24 unsheltered

Washington County’s count saw 84 sheltered individuals and 211 unsheltered. The 2020 count showed 102 sheltered and 120 unsheltered.

For 2020, the state report shows an estimated total of 370 sheltered homeless individuals in Iron County, which was down from 503 in 2018. Conversely, Washington County saw an increase of 1,017 in 2020 from the 953 had in 2018.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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