OGDEN — Salt Lake County may harbor Utah's core homeless services and has been at the heart of the yearslong conversation to improve the state's homeless system.
But up north, there's another county that's seen a "startling" increase in its homeless population, according to a new report.
The number of homeless people in Weber County has risen by 48 percent from 2014 to 2018, according to the report commissioned by the Weber Housing Authority. The number is based on the Point in Time Count, a yearly count of sheltered and unsheltered people on a single night.
That's a rise from 254 people in January 2014 to 376 people in January 2018.
And the rate of homelessness in Weber County is "proportionately higher" than homelessness in Salt Lake County — and is increasing at faster rates than it is in both Salt Lake County and in the state of Utah as a whole, the 135-page report found.
"I don't think we're at a crisis yet, but if we don't do something now, it will be in the very near future," Andi Beadles, executive director of the Weber Housing Authority, told the Deseret News.
"The numbers were so startling that we as a community have to take steps right away to improve our homeless system," she said.
According to data submitted into the Utah Homeless Management Information System, the annual unduplicated count of homeless people in Weber County was 2,551 in 2018 compared to 1,533 in 2014 — a 66 percent increase, the report states.
Compared to an 11 percent increase in Salt Lake County for the same time period (from 9,736 in 2014 to 10,807 in 2018), Weber County's rate of homelessness is increasing at "faster rates than it is in Salt Lake County and in the state of Utah as a whole," the report says.
"This comparison will likely come as a surprise to many and should bring pause to political leaders and lawmakers who might discount the need for funding and support in Weber County," according to the report.
Even though Weber County hosts 13 percent to 16 percent of the state's homeless population, it received only 8.9 percent of state homeless funding in the 2019 fiscal year, according to the report. Service providers in Salt Lake County take the lion's share.
Why is Weber County homelessness on the rise? There's no single answer, Beadles said, but it's likely due to both ever-rising housing costs and perhaps Operation Rio Grande in Salt Lake County, where law enforcement efforts caused some people living on the streets to disperse elsewhere in what some local leaders have called the "ripple effect."
While Weber County is home to some homeless services — mostly in Ogden, where the 300-bed Lantern House and up to roughly 100-bed Ogden Rescue Mission shelters are located — the county "lacks a coordination and planning body" to create a "strategic plan to address the gaps and barriers to safe and affordable housing," the report states.
Judy Doud, executive director of the Ogden Rescue Mission, said she hasn't personally seen an "astronomical" increase in homelessness — but she did note her shelter has already reached overflow status (meaning some people are sleeping on floor mats), even though that typically doesn't happen this time of year.
Doud said she's frustrated to see "ridiculous" rent prices and "slumlords taking advantage of people."
"It makes it very difficult for somebody just trying to get on their feet again," she said.
Ashley Barker Tolman Shuler, the consultant who wrote the report, included recommendations to hire a "homeless services system coordinator" to oversee implementation of a strategic plan with a "housing first" focus.Comment on this story
The Weber County report comes amid Salt Lake County's yearslong efforts to reform its homeless system with the closure of the troubled Road Home's downtown shelter and the opening of three new homeless resource centers in Salt Lake City and South Salt Lake later this year.
Those changes came after stakeholders, including local politicians, homeless service providers, and housing advocates, joined together on multiple committees to plan for the reforms.
Now, Weber County may consider doing something similar, Beadles said.
"We're just trying to be proactive in our approach rather than reactive, to get ahead of this before it turns into a Salt Lake City situation," Beadles said. "We have a lot of work to do."