April peak month for homelessness in Utah County

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April is generally known for its warm weather and spring breaks, but it is also the month homelessness peaks in Utah, Wasatch and Summit Counties. The majority of those left homeless are not the mentally ill or war veterans, but are families with children.

These families hover below the poverty line and above destitution until a lay-off, vehicle problem, illness or other financial set-back keeps them from making rent, ultimately resulting in eviction.

“With the recession, the economy, there has been a slow recovery, but many family situations haven’t recovered yet,” said Myla Dutton, executive director at Community Action Services and Food Bank. “People who can work are working. They’re just perhaps in two part-time jobs, it’s all they can find, and they’re low-paying jobs.”

If evicted, these families often resort to living with family, friends or acquaintances.

“Families who are doubled up are living in very stressful situations,” Dutton said. “And more often than not … that’s a very short-term stay. And it’s not living in an apartment in the basement, it’s living in a living room … (It’s a) really, really tough place.”

Dutton said a recent survey in the community found that 13 percent of the population in the previous 12 months had either had precariously housed a family or been precariously housed themselves.

“We’re talking in a year’s time 65,000 people who are dealing with that unstable housing situation in some way. … It’s a problem,” Dutton said.

Once a family can no longer remain with a person familiar to them, the family often gets stuck in a loop of homelessness.

“If you pay a week’s worth in a motel, a low-cost motel, that could be two, three, four hundred dollars,” Dutton said. “So how do you get enough together, how do you save enough money … to be able to pay first month’s rent, last month’s rent and a deposit?”

Part of the problem is that some Utah communities do not have sufficient affordable housing. There are currently 0.95 housing units for every household in the valley, meaning that more than 8,000 housing units are needed to be able to house every resident.

For more affordable housing to be built, Dutton said, community leaders and developers have to work together. Without government funding, investors and tax credits, developers are unlikely to put forth the resources to build housing that offers affordable rent rates for struggling families.

Cities generally choose to build middle-income housing, which, although more attractive, is not affordable for the working class or families who are just starting out.

“So those kinds of decisions made by community leaders can have an impact on the ability of a developer to provide something that’s more affordable for the first-time home owner or renter,” Dutton said.

Communities are beginning to opt for mixed housing, housing with a smaller footprint and smaller acreage that still fits into the neighborhood. Some creative options that are becoming popular are twin homes and fourplexes.

Dutton said this construction will cultivate “that kind of live-up-above-the-coffee-shop (feel) … Provo City is really thinking far, far ahead … that will be a draw to middle-income families and lower-income families. … It’s wonderful how (cities) are thinking creatively, because we need to.”

Other types of homelessness are less likely to be solved by growth in mixed developments. Panhandlers continue to dot downtown Provo, pushing community leaders like United Way’s CEO Bill Hulterstrom to ask tough questions.

Hulterstorm said there are places to shelter panhandlers from elements. The question is: What comes next? Should the city help individuals move upward or allow them to stay?

“How much do you push?” Hulterstrom asked. “How much do you say, ‘Take whatever you need?’”

Hulterstrom addressed the desire to help that many passersby feels when they see a seemingly homeless pan-handler.

“One of the challenges is even … that good intention may push some people away,” Hulterstrom said.  Sometimes when we offer money to a panhandler, not only are we not helping them, we’re keeping them from the help they need. … It’s a question we need to ask ourselves.”

Anna, a woman that panhandles on Center St. and University Ave., said the money she receives goes mostly to finding a room.

“We’re basically trying to come up with enough money to get a motel room, so food is second because we need somewhere to get out of the cold,” she said.

Anna said she has been homeless for over three months after a falling out with her parents.

“For me, it’s pretty embarrassing to do this,” she said. “I don’t like to do it at all, I don’t want to do it, but I have to do it, because I mean, no one else will help you out there.”

When it comes to solving Utah County’s homeless issue, Hulterstrom simply said: “There is not one simple solution.”

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