Utahns, hit by homelessness for the first time, were on the rise for the first time in years. Here’s why.

Due to skyrocketing housing costs, more and more residents are living on the “edge”.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tony Lambert helps take down a tent for a friend on Thursday, February 17, 2022 during the redevelopment of Fort Pioneer. A new report shows that the number of Utah residents experiencing homelessness for the first time increased 14% in the past fiscal year.

The number of Utahns experiencing homelessness for the first time has risen over the past year, and state officials believe pandemic-related turmoil and rising home prices may be to blame.

The Utah Office of Homeless Services’ annual report, released Wednesday, found that the number of first-time homeless Utahans rose 14% from fiscal 2020-2021, marking the first time the metric has skyrocketed in five years. (The federal fiscal year runs from October 1st to September 30th.)

Joseph Jensen, data manager for the state agency, said officials are studying how the pandemic and housing costs are affecting homelessness. In Utah, he said, more people are still participating in service programs — even if they aren’t affected by homelessness.

“We have more Utahns who are on that edge in terms of housing stability and are reaching for resources,” Jensen said. “And some of that also affects our system of homeless assistance.”

The annual report incorporates data from three federal sources, including a report examining how homelessness response systems work, as well as the annual timing and housing inventory censuses conducted each January.

Jensen said the increase in general homelessness and first-time homelessness in Utah is consistent with trends across the country. The influx of people with homelessness, he said, is exceeding the ability of service providers to move people out of their homes.

But Utah is seeing progress, or at least stabilization, in some key areas of its homeless assistance system.

Following increases in the average length of stay in shelters, these numbers have essentially leveled off in the most recent report.

“We still have people staying in these shelters longer than we’d like,” Jensen said. “It’s above our goals and we’re working on it, but we’re happy to see that we’ve slowed down this increase that we’ve seen previously.”

Officials believe stabilization will be driven by improved coordination and programs that help relocate vulnerable residents from emergency shelters to temporary shelters and then to permanent shelters.

Tricia Davis, deputy director of the Office of Homeless Services, said these resources are being funded by federal pandemic relief dollars that will not be available next year. If the federal government does not continue to pay for such resources, the state must find solutions.

The state has also had success with people staying in long-term shelters. According to the report, more than 95% of those enrolled in permanent housing projects either stayed where they were or switched to another form of long-term housing.

“We know if we can get people to live with the appropriate services,” said Jensen, “that works.”

The state also saw a flattening in the number of people returning to homelessness. Despite this, according to the report, nearly 30% of people who seek permanent housing return to being homeless within two years.

“Well, still room to go there,” Jensen said. “But we’re glad that metric is down compared to a few years ago and that even as we saw more and more people coming into the system, we haven’t seen any real increase in our return to homelessness.”

In the future, Davis said, the bureau will use its data to coordinate with other agencies and develop a more complete picture of homelessness in Utah.

In the meantime, the Utah Homelessness Council is working on a strategic plan to continue addressing these issues statewide.

The Legislature this year poured $55 million into ultra-affordable housing and services — less than half what Utah Gov. Spencer Cox was aiming for. Last week, the Salt Lake City City Council approved a budget that included more than $20 million for affordable and ultra-affordable housing. Utahns, hit by homelessness for the first time, were on the rise for the first time in years. Here’s why.

Joel McCord

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