OGDEN -- Utah housing officials are touting an 8.2 percent drop in overall Utah homelessness, but the director of St. Anne's Shelter said more efficient programs, not fewer people losing homes, may be what's reducing the number of homeless in shelters at any given time.
As evidence, Jennifer Canter said, she just added seven new family housing rooms with space for up to 30 people and is confident of filling them.
The Utah Point in Time homeless count was released Wednesday by the Division of Housing and Community Development. Every year in January, workers fan out in the state, counting everyone in homeless shelters and everyone living on the street or in camps.
This year's statewide count of those in shelters was 2,672, with another 442 not in shelters, for a total of 3,114. That compares to 2,810 sheltered last year and another 562 unsheltered, or 3,372 total.
At a news conference in Salt Lake City, Lt. Gov. Greg Bell said the reduction was because of the state's Housing First initiative, which works to get people out of homeless shelters as quickly as possible. It especially works to get the chronic homeless, people who tend to use shelters for permanent housing, into some other sort of housing where caseworkers can concentrate on changing their lives.
That effort reduced the number of chronic homeless by 26 percent, he said.
Numbers for Top of Utah counties showed small reductions in the number of homeless in shelters, but more people living outside the shelters on the night of the count.
Canter said the count was done on a very cold night to encourage the homeless to be in shelters. She said the increase in unsheltered may just be that workers are getting better at finding where the homeless stay.
Weber County had 235 sheltered and another 39 unsheltered in the 2010 count. This year it had 228 sheltered and 51 unsheltered.
Davis County showed a slight increase, from 127 homeless last year to 130 this year, but this year it had 17 unsheltered whereas last year it only had three.
Box Elder County had 25 homeless this year and 19 last year, with no unsheltered. Morgan had no homeless that the count found.
Gordon Walker, director of the state Division of Housing and Community Development, said the effort to get the chronic homeless into permanent housing is making the shelters more efficient at handling those who are homeless because of short-term housing problems or job loss.
In the past, they had trouble getting into shelters because chronic homeless were there all the time. "As we move long-term homeless individuals into housing, we are able to use that same bed several times over for those experiencing short-term homelessness," Walker said.
Canter said that, despite the reduction in numbers, she's still seeing so many homeless families that she had to open the new overflow shelter in the Ogden Salvation Army's former drug-treatment building.
The temporary shelter, she said, has seven rooms that are big enough to hold multiple families and opened last Friday.
Canter said the bad economy and housing markets have both sent more people to her shelter and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Bishop's Storehouse seeking housing aid. St. Anne's works in conjunction with the church, she said, providing casework for the families to help them find a permanent situation.
Canter said the overflow shelter costs $6,000 a month, but is saving the LDS Church much more, because the church had been putting homeless families up in hotels.
Now, she said, any family that comes to the church is sent to St. Anne's first. "We evaluate their need and either put them into a hotel or put them into a shelter," she said. "And we case-manage both shelters, and hopefully we turn them back into housing in a month or so, and it's a lot cheaper for the church."