'Tis not the season of overflowing homeless shelters, but the economic cold weather is creating winter-level demand on area emergency-housing agencies.
Requests for temporary lodgings have been at Christmas-rush peaks the past two months, with providers maintaining at least weekly contact with counterparts statewide looking for overflow space.
The Road Home, the state's largest shelter, deals with the wintertime peaks by opening annexes that close in early spring as demand drops and temperatures rise.
As things go at the The Road Home, so goes the activity at other shelters. The state's busiest emergency/transitional housing service has space for 31 families but is providing room for five to 15 extra families per night by setting up cots in the foyer and office areas. About 60 families requesting services have been placed on a waiting list.
Many factors are leading to an increased demand for emergency services, said Matt Minkevitch, Road Home executive director.
"Evictions due to a job loss, medical bills that can't be paid due to loss of medical benefits, we've been seeing a lot of that figuring in," he said, noting that a faltering economy translates quickly into a need for emergency help for those near the bottom of the economic ladder.
Unofficial shelters such as temporary rooms offered by family members have been able to assimilate an unknown percentage of those who are technically homeless, and shelters statewide have been managing to find room at the inn, Minkevitch and other shelter managers said.
"We will always make room for those whose situation has become desperate," he said. Sleeping in your car is a desperate situation, he said, and he emphasized that people who are homeless or believe they're about to be shouldn't hesitate to call the shelter.
"They shouldn't feel like they're all alone," Minkevitch said. "A lot of people find themselves in tough situations for any number of reasons. Whys don't matter. We're here to help, and so that's what we do."
However varied the circumstances dictating the increase in demand, handling it is made more difficult by who is looking for shelter more families. Requests from single males have followed seasonal patterns, but requests from families and single women with children are reportedly up by at least one-third, according to area shelters.
Providers in Davis and Weber counties said finding additional space for emergency shelters running at capacity occurs regularly in winter months but is rare in warmer months when getting through a few nights by camping in trailers, along rivers or staying on the street isn't complicated by snow or freezing temperatures.
An operator of a battered women's shelter in northern Utah who said she didn't want to be named due to recent stalking incidents involving some of the tenants there said motels have become annexes to many of the smaller shelters.
"That's not the ideal situation for a battered woman trying to protect herself and her children," she said. "But even that space that we try to keep available has been full this summer," which has forced the shelter at times to ask a caller to rank the likelihood and level of danger if admission is put off a few days.
"That's not a good position for an emergency help center to be in, and it's a question we just hate having to ask," she said.
Emergency needs are also being met by various volunteer and faith-based programs that have stepped up services for families in transition. Along with individual assistance programs of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, at least a half-dozen other faiths have stepped up to help families who have fallen on hard times. In Salt Lake City, an estimated 20 congregations are offering Family Promise space to families, converting Sunday school space into temporary homes for families who have lost theirs or are in between jobs.
Like the state agencies and nonprofit community service groups keeping tabs on the situation, Family Promise says families make up at least half and possibly as much as two-thirds of the state's homeless population. There is no way to accurately determine how many families are trying to deal with the problem on their own.
Steve Graham, Family Promise president, told the Deseret News in April that predictions show the face of homelessness is changing because "after they've tried as hard as they can to not depend on anyone else, they turn to outside help."
There is the promise of more space being available in the fall as the first of several remodeled buildings is set to come on line to provide permanent housing for Utah's indigent and low-income residents.
The 200-unit Palmer Court, scheduled to open this fall, is being regarded as a centerpiece of the state's effort to end chronic homelessness by 2014.
The bump in the number of families in need driven by foreclosures or workplace cutbacks isn't deemed chronic under the strict definition of homelessness (a year or longer), said Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness."The faces may be changing, but any effort locally, especially like the model alliance of communities addressing homelessness in Utah, is both a workable solution and an practical example for other states nationwide."
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