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Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Pete Caldwell kneels down to talk to Bryan John who was sleeping in an alley near Washington Blvd. and 32nd Street in Ogden during the "point-in-time" count of the homeless population in Weber county on Friday, Jan. 26, 2018.

OGDEN — Having spent the bulk of his life homeless since he was 24, Bryan John is used to never staying any one place for very long — even if it's where he laid his head to sleep for the night.

"As soon as it gets light, I won't be around here," said John, referring to the obscure back alley where moments before he had been sleeping next to the outer wall of a downtown Ogden business. "I don't hang around here at all."

John, now 59, was awakened in the wee hours of Friday by a mostly volunteer group that was out canvassing Ogden's streets in search of those who are homeless.

The group was participating Friday in a state data collection effort called a Point-in-Time Count, which occurs every January. It's an initiative meant to help communities search out who among them has no place to stay. The data is eventually reported to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

It's also one way for local authorities to understand the scope of the scourge of homelessness in their particular area. And the time to get the best glimpse of who is sleeping in the streets is naturally in the middle of the night, explained Andi Beadles, executive director of the Weber Housing Authority.

"It is a population that does stay hidden," Beadles said. "So we need to reach out and engage them that way."

Hardly raising his head out of the swarm of blankets that covered his body, John answered questions about his health status, addictions and his demographics. He's no stranger to those who were there to see him — at least two in the group already knew him by name. And he didn't hold back or hesitate with his answers.

"I'm an alcoholic," John explained to the Deseret News. "All my friends are, too."

John said he was recently expelled from his stay at the St. Anne's Center; he and a friend were drinking while there "and they caught us with a bottle," he explained with the resigned tone of someone who knows the rules are the rules.

John is no fan of the daily early wake-up call he would receive during a shelter stay elsewhere, so he is electing for now to take his chances under the open sky.

"This is the only place where I can figure out to go," he told the Deseret News, though he added he was conscious of the fact he would not be a welcome sight to the business owners when the sun rose — and that he would need to leave. For the moment, he was hoping to weather the cold that comes with the dead of night in January and be able catch some more sleep.

"I got all these blankets. I'm a little chilly, but I'm doing OK," he said.

Thanking John for his willingness to wake up and take the survey, volunteers gave him a $5 gift card to a Burger King and a fleece blanket to put on as another layer against the winter freeze.

Getting people to take the survey can be challenging, Beadles said, and those incentives can sometimes help in that regard.

About 50 volunteers have been assisting in this year's count in Weber County, splitting up into seven teams patrolling Ogden, where the lion's share of the county's homeless live. In the interest of thoroughness, by the time they are finished, those searches will have been repeated on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, each time beginning at 4 a.m., Beadles said.

"Honestly, we could not do it without our volunteers," she said. "It keeps us going."

For the first time this year, Ogden police officers in street clothes have accompanied the teams, which Beadles said helps the volunteers feel more self-assured as they scour obscure locations.

Outside the back of a convenience store, James Crossley, who is homeless, said he is grateful for the people who have reached out to those in his situation.

"I can't say anything bad about them," Crossley said. "They've helped a lot of people, they've helped me."

Crossley has been staying in a shelter since November after falling on hard times, he said. He's looking forward to the spring, when there will be more day labor opportunities available for his job as a road construction flagger. But he said he's also been grateful for a relatively mild winter so far.

"This isn't winter really," Crossley said.

He said he would like to get out of his homeless predicament as soon as possible.

"Some people like living like this. I don't," he said. "If you can avoid it, do it."

Homelessness trends

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development said last year that the 2017 Point-in-Time Counts conducted in the Beehive State discovered 2,852 homeless Utahns, representing a 1.6 percent increase in that number over the year before, but a 13.2 percent decrease since 2010.

The 2017 count also found 278 homeless Utahns who were unsheltered.

In Weber and Morgan counties combined, a Utah Department of Workforce Services report shows there were 23 people found unsheltered in 2015 and 11 in 2016. Beadles said that number "was around 17" last year.

As of 6:30 a.m. Friday, 19 homeless people had been surveyed on the street in Ogden over two nights, according to Beadles, who cautioned that any preliminary data would need to be analyzed before it is considered final.

Operation Rio Grande factor

According to Beadles, the Weber Housing Authority has seen an increase in people seeking services ever since the August launch of Operation Rio Grande, an extensive effort to root out drug dealing and other crime in the downtown Salt Lake neighborhood.

Weber County does not gather detailed data from those seeking services about where they were last, so "we can't say for sure" what the exact impact is, she said, "but what we hear (from them) is … they are coming up from Salt Lake."

The count is one way "how we're going to know" more about the full impacts of Operation Rio Grande in Weber County, Beadles said.

Larry, a homeless man who was contacted Friday during the Point-in-Time search and declined to give his last name, said he recently hitchhiked to Utah from Arizona in search of work.

He cited the drug dealing happening in Salt Lake City among the homeless population — rather than the police crackdown there — as the reason he didn't last too long there before making his way to Weber County.

"There's a lot of goofy people down there," he said.

"To tell the truth, I like Ogden better than Salt Lake. Salt Lake's — everything's kind of messed up with the people down there," he said. "That's why I don't go down there."

Larry, who is currently in a shelter, said that of those he is staying with, "off and on they come in … from Salt Lake."

Larry said he feels safer in Ogden, and believes he is well cared for by those who provide homelessness services.

"I'm doing OK with Ogden," he said. "On a rate (of) one to 10, they'd be 10. They're nice to me here."

Bill Campbell, a retired Hill Air Force Base maintenance supervisor who has been volunteering to help with the Point-in-Time Count for the past five years, was skeptical of Operation Rio Grande, saying it simply pushed some of Salt Lake's homeless population into Weber County.

"They had to go somewhere," Campbell said, adding that decision-makers "should have considered that before they scattered them."

Over the last few months, "it's different faces, it's different people I don't recognize," he said. "It's a total different population. I don't have a number, but I know they weren't here six months ago."

Beadles had the same assessment: There has been a bit less familiarity between the homeless population now and those who serve them.

"In the past we've known who we have, (and have had) a really good idea of who the homeless population is. We know them, they know us," she said. "(Recently) we have seen a few new faces."

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Debbie Everett, a nursing student at Weber State University who volunteered for this year's Point-in-Time Count, said the consensus is that the number of homeless people seeking emergency medical care in the county has gone up significantly since August. She said she's "a little jaded" by the abuse of emergency services by the homeless and volunteered in part to "see the other side of the coin."

"I'm trying to gain more compassion, empathy and understand and find out where they're at and why they got where they got," Everett said.