Volunteers span state to count homeless

Published: Saturday, Feb. 2 2013 6:51 p.m. MST

Chris Gomez of The Road Home, left, and Buddy Tymczyszyn of The Road Home, right, speak with Charles Miller during the annual Point-In-Time Count of the homeless population at a Maverik across from the Salt Lake Rescue Mission on Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Volunteers fanned out across Utah Saturday, the final day of an annual effort to find those who are homeless so that a helping hand can be offered through the year.

Each year the Utah State Community Services Office in conjunction with Volunteers of America organizes a physical count of all homeless individuals across the state to determine how many people were without shelter on a single night — at one Point-In-Time.

The three-day effort requires extensive coordination, said Tamera Kohler, director of the Utah State Community Services Office.

Its success is dependent on the collaboration and aid of several organizations such as local homeless coordinating committees, state agencies, police and sheriff departments, religious leaders, hospitals and clinics, providers of homeless and domestic violence services and many volunteers, she explained.

This year more than 300 volunteers participated in the event, which ended on Saturday.

“This process of counting is …an efficient and effective way to use our resources,” she said. The results of the count are expected in about two months.

Last year 3,527 homeless individuals were counted across Utah. From this data it was projected that 16,522 people experienced homelessness in Utah throughout 2012.

Information from the Point-In-Time Count is used to determine the need and gaps in services across the state, Kohler said. Federal and state funds are allocated to different areas of the state based on the information gathered in this count and an accurate count will ensure the appropriate resources come to our community, she said.

Among the major goals of the count was to eliminate chronic homelessness in Utah, according to Rob Wesemann, division director for Homeless Services for Volunteers of America.

Chronic homelessness is characterized as people who have been without permanent shelter for at least a year or who have experienced four episodes of homelessness within the past three years.

“We combine our yearly (count) with an assessment that helps us establish a (baseline for needs) so that we are able to prioritize and focus our efforts on the most vulnerable,” he said. “We want to have a more dedicated effort to determine the kind of situation people are in. If we can more clearly identify that, then we can develop better resources to provide the services that people need.”

Wesemann said one of the more disturbing trends of late has been the incidents of family homelessness that have become more prevalent in recent years, due in part to the economic downturn.

“There are a lot more families that we see in the shelters and a lot more families that we find out on the street,” he said.

He said one of the current goals is to define the problem of homelessness “more accurately” in order to determine who may be most at-risk and develop strategies to address those specific issues.

Among the solutions is to target availability of affordable housing and employment, he said.

Since 2005, the total annualized count of homeless in Utah has increased from less than 14,000 people to more than 16,500 last year. The count has helped those who serve the homeless to develop programs to decrease the number of chronically homeless individuals in Utah from around 2,000 to 542 in 2012.

“The value of conducting such a count on an annual basis is illustrated by the provider community’s ability to better direct funding and services based on this data,” said Gordon Walker, director of the Utah Division of Housing and Community Development. “This year’s point in time count is also critical to our state’s goal in ending chronic homelessness in Utah.”

“We believe our counting methods are more comprehensive and the data collected will help speed the road to permanent housing for our chronically homeless population,” Walker added.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires states to complete a physical count of both sheltered and unsheltered homeless persons as a condition of federal aid.

E-mail: jlee@desnews.com, Twitter: JasenLee1

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