SOUTH SALT LAKE — The only sound where Nathen Brown and Marie VanValkenburg slept was the soft rumble of the occasional early morning commuter car passing overhead, along with the quiet flow of the Jordan River below.
It was nearly 5 a.m. Some lingering coals burned near where they slept — a makeshift bed of blankets nestled beneath a Jordan River Parkway overpass.
A sea of abandoned belongings surround their camp, stretching along both sides beneath the overpass. Old tarps, tents, mangled bikes, tattered clothes — trash everywhere. They weren't the first ones to stay there, and they won't be the last.
Brown and VanValkenburg were fast asleep. But suddenly, they jumped awake when they heard a voice boom, echoing off the overpass' concrete walls.
VanValkenburg first thought the police had come back to tell them to break down their camp. But then she recognized the voice.
"Volunteers of America!"
It was Shawn Spalding, an outreach worker, with two other Volunteers of America housing case managers, Brooke Pyper and Elizabeth Baron, in tow.
Spalding continued calling out as he ducked under the overpass' beams and stepped through the masses of junk, making his way toward Brown and VanValkenburg's camp. He knew someone would be there.
"Oh — hi guys, sorry," Spalding said as his headlamp light flashed in VanValkenburg's eyes. He quickly switched his light from a bright white to a dull red so she could stop shielding her face. She blinked bleary-eyed but smiled.
"Can we do a survey with you guys?" Spalding asked, apologizing for waking them.
Spalding and the other case managers were among more than 200 volunteers who woke before 4 a.m. Thursday to scour on all corners of Salt Lake County in search of those sleeping in the cold.
The group was a part of hundreds of other trained volunteers across other counties in Utah joining in on the annual state data collection effort called the Point-in-Time count, which is federally required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The count, conducted by trained volunteers and homeless services providers, attempts to capture data on unsheltered people experiencing homelessness. The count is conducted each year from 4 a.m. to 6 a.m. on a date in late January selected by HUD, although the surveying occurs over a three-day window.
Thursday marked the annual count's first day.
"Your voice carries," VanValkenburg told Spalding, laughing. Spalding apologized for startling them.
Brown and VanValkenburg rubbed sleep from their eyes as Pyper began listing off survey questions. They asked about their demographics, health and any addictions, as well as where they slept Wednesday night.
"Here," VanValkenburg answered.
"They're nailing down on everybody pretty hard right now," she added, noting that law enforcement had recently told them to leave. "We're either brave enough or dumb enough to stay in here."
Faces of homelessness
Brown, 36, told them he had been in and out of homeless shelters with his mother ever since he was a child, but most recently he lost housing in 2016. VanValkenburg, 32, said her most recent bout of homelessness began in 2015.
Both said they aren't currently using drugs but have struggled in the past. VanValkenburg told the Deseret News she'd rather sleep outside than risk being exposed to drugs in the shelters.
"To me, a shelter's a walking, talking, tweaking zombie," she said.
A recent state audit found widespread drug use and safety concerns in the Road Home's downtown shelter, but homelessness leaders have since implemented new security measures and say they now better screen for drugs and weapons.
Rather than forcing people off the streets, VanValkenburg said police "need to back down and let people be human."
Brown said he hated staying in the shelters because it reminds him of losing custody of his three children, after he refused to take a urine analysis drug test at the Midvale family shelter without a warrant.
"If they didn't take my girls, I'd probably have an apartment now and I'd be taking care of them because they were my life," he said.
Brown said because of that, he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, but he isn't interested in treatment because he "doesn't like talking to psychiatrists."
Brown said he's been "trying to get a job and get back on my feet" so he can get his daughters back.
"It's just been hell," he said.
For VanValkenburg, she said she can't find a job because "being a felon doesn't make it easy." She said she was found guilty of credit card fraud and forgery.
"Everybody holds it against you," she said.
After completing the survey, Spalding and the other volunteers gave them socks, hand warmers and some $5 gift cards for food. Spalding promised to come back later to bring them some water.
Brown said he was "grateful" for the volunteers, noting they had helped a friend who had pneumonia. "I love how you guys reach out. It's nice to actually have a friend."
"And someone who cares," VanValkenburg chimed in.
Spalding said this year marks his third Point-in-Time count. He said he's "just always had a lot of passion and love" for the homeless, and he "always tries to put myself in their shoes."
To Spalding, the count is more than just a federally required data collection.
"I don't think people realize how many homeless people there are," he said, noting that while sometimes they're in plain sight, other times "they're in a lot of places you'd never imagine," like where Brown and VanValkenburg slept among debris beneath the overpass.
Leading the search, Spalding took familiar paths into the woods surrounding the Jordan River — where he found a snow-covered tent he said was usually occupied by a man named Mike. Mike wasn't there, so Spalding and his team left socks and gift cards for him to find later.
They also looked in some grated drainage pipes, where Spalding said he'd sometimes find someone sleeping. There were some old mattresses inside, but no one answered his call.
Later, as 6 a.m. approached, Pyper found one of her clients, Paul, sleeping in a tent behind an auto shop, also near the Jordan River. He and his friend nicknamed "Junior" completed the survey.
"It's important for people to know they're out here and know their struggles," Spalding said. "They're people like everybody else, with dreams and aspirations."
Pyper said she aims to "destigmatize homelessness" and remind people the homeless "are our community members and they deserve our respect, our help and as much support as they can get."
Back at volunteers' home base at Sunrise Metro Apartments, Rob Wesemann, executive director of NAMI Utah who oversaw Salt Lake County's count, applauded the efforts so far this year.
As of Thursday morning, Wesemann estimated they had completed about 80 surveys — which he said is right "in line" with trends in previous years, though he noted it's too early to tell what the data will reveal. Wesemann said he had hoped to see fewer people outside, considering the freezing temperatures and snow cover and efforts to get more people housed.
This year's trends
So far, Wesemann said it appears there continues to be "less concentration" in Salt Lake City after Operation Rio Grande — similar to last year'sfindings. He said teams found people as far south as Midvale.
The goal is to get people off the streets, Wesemann said, but "sometimes a shelter situation can be crowded, noisy, it doesn't work for some folks." Some have pets, lots of belongings they don't want to give up, or mental health issues that make shelter or housing difficult, he said.
"(Living on the street) is what the person perceives of the best of some not-so-good choices," Wesemann said. "We don't really believe that people choose to be homeless if they have another choice to be safe and warm and comfortable."
Wesemann said the data will be analyzed in the coming months "and we'll see what we've found here." The findings are usually released in August.
Last year's Point-in-Time count found almost the exact same number of people were homeless compared to a year before, but the proportion of those who were unsheltered increased.
The count found 2,876 homeless people across the state, just 11 more than were recorded the year before, according to the report. About 420 unsheltered individuals were counted, marking an increase compared to the 291 counted in 2017 and the 236 counted the year before that.8 comments on this story
Wesemann called the count a "one-day snapshot" of homelessness, noting tracking homelessness is complex and not as simple as counting one day a year.
However, he sees the count as giving an "infusion of outreach" that may help "re-engage" people with services as well as perhaps connect new faces.
"These people have lives, they have histories and they have experiences that are not unlike our own," Wesemann said. "To put a face to that really helps us to come together and find an appropriate solution."