They can be spotted on the street corner or sitting on a bench, but more frequently, they’re not even noticed.
A common misperception of homelessness is a line of people with tattered clothes, open hands and empty stomachs standing outside a ramshackle shelter. However, the plague of homelessness and poverty usually goes unseen.
A recent study conducted by the Utah State Community Services Office says chronic homelessness in Utah has dropped from nine percent to three percent in the previous four years. But the numbers seem contradictory as Utah’s homeless population has jumped from 14,351 to 16,522 in only a year. Almost 45 percent of homeless people remain with their families. Of those families, 70 percent are led by a single mom.
The average age of a homeless adult is 38, and the average homeless child is only seven years old. Children comprise 30 percent of the homeless population. Only .11 percent of Utah’s population is homeless, which is lower than most states.
Tony Milner sees people daily who have “just fallen on hard times.”
“Most (of) the families are working, the kids are all in school,” Milner said.
Milner is the executive director of Family Promise of Salt Lake, an organization that works with nearby religious affiliations to take in three or four homeless families per night. These families then rotate through churches every so often. Milner said this works better than a typical shelter. Family Promise can tap into the resources and charity these religious organizations are so willing to give. He said this is why Utah does so well in comparison to the national average of homelessness and why chronic homelessness is dropping steadily.
“This improvement greatly increases because of that natural support,” Milner said.
Temporary housing, like that which Family Promise provides, shows a greater success rate at ending homelessness than do shelters. Celest Eggert, development director at the Road Home of Salt Lake, said 86 percent of the people they see stay in temporary housing for an average of 30 days, and then to her joy, the shelters never see them again, and they find permanent residences.
“We’re more than just a shelter; we’re all about housing,” Eggert said.
Utah County has significantly fewer homeless people. 772 people in Utah County are homeless, compared to 11,187 people in Salt Lake County. Both of these numbers jumped since last year. Milner said scams such as “for profit” schools and “low credit, no credit” car dealerships are taking advantage of and targeting the poor.
“We have such a ridiculous system in place,” Milner said. He said he’s disappointed people can get away with such scams. Although Milner said he could not point to one specific reason temporary homelessness has jumped, he credits these hoaxes as a central reason.
“This is the result of years of undercutting and putting up institutions against poor folk,” Milner said.
While temporary homelessness soars, those in Salt Lake County have several places to seek out while they get back on their feet. Utah County doesn’t have the same luxury; the main point of contact is the Food and Care Coalition in Provo.
The mission of the Food and Care Coalition goes beyond providing a warm bed and meal. The organization actively works to help those in need find permanent housing. Ten years ago, Utah began an “End Chronic Homelessness” campaign. Part of this plan was to implement a strategy to assist in house hunting for the homeless.
But the Food and Care Coalition has expanded their services as a result of the temporary housing spike. Brent Crane, executive director of the Food and Care Coalition, said it was interesting when they expanded their temporary residencies.
“2011 was a bittersweet year as the coalition was able to complete 38 transitional housing units,” Crane said.
Eggert said it’s better to have transitional housing like this than shelters. Chronically homeless people use one bed and living space at the Road Home for an extended period of time, a year on average. During that year, they can also use the same bed and space for 15 other people. Eggert said the economy of the state improves when families can be quickly transitioned in and out of housing. And lately, this is what she’s experiencing.
“I’m used to seeing families come back, and we’re not seeing that,” Eggert said.
Chronic homelessness is on the decline and even though homelessness has spiked, Utah is prepared to help people turn around quickly to find housing.
“We exist because of the generosity of our community,” Eggert said. “We’re so lucky.”