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South Salt Lake Journal

South Salt Lake volunteers get up early for statewide homeless count

Feb 24, 2020 03:06PM ● By Bill Hardesty

Fitts Park at 4 a.m. as Point-in-Time volunteers start the count. (Bill Hardesty/City Journals)

By Bill Hardesty | [email protected]

Between Jan. 23-25, across the state, the annual homeless Point-in-Time count was completed. In Salt Lake County, over 100 volunteers walked the streets each morning between 4 and 6 a.m. looking for homeless individuals to survey. 

The point of the count was to know where homeless individuals spent the night on Jan. 22, even though they might be surveyed days later. Individuals in the three Homeless Resource Centers or the temporary homeless shelter in Sugar House, were counted by staff at the respective centers. 


“This is the biggest group we have ever had,” declared Rob Wesemann, executive director of NAMI Utah and co-chair of the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness, as he welcomed volunteers.

He added, “This is our best opportunity to not only get a count but also connect clients with services.”

There are two outcomes from the count. The first is to get a sense if the new Homelessness Resource model is adequate. Secondly, the amount of federal dollars available to Utah is based on the homelessness report produced by the state based on the count.

In the training, volunteers learned that for the unsheltered homeless, they are often on the move between 4 and 6 a.m. 

The survey was 10-minutes long and was collected with a smart phone app. Not only did it ask about where they slept on Jan. 22 but also asked questions about alcohol use, drug use, and if they were a victim of domestic abuse. It also asked when was the last time they had a permanent residence.

The final instruction was to remember that mental illness is 25% among the homeless community compared to 1-2% in the general public. Volunteers were instructed to listen and be understanding. Then people were divided into teams of three or more and were given a census tract area to survey.

Day one

Team members Brandon Siracuse and Alec Gehrke walked around for two hours, but found no one. 

Siracuse is a University of Utah graduate student studying urban planning. A former professor suggested to him that getting involved in the count was a good thing.

Gehrke was a seasoned worker. This was his second year. He works in direct services, which is an umbrella term for providing services to individuals such as the homeless or the poor.

In the early hours, they walked through Fitts Park. Thanks to Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) principles, the park is well lit from 500 East to 300 East. They walked north to the community center thinking of warm places the homeless might use. They walked around the community center and then along 2700 South to 500 East. They walked back to the park along 500 East. They also walked around the Historic Scott School and on both sides of 3300 South.

They hoped for a better day two.

Day two

On this morning some teams of two walked on both sides of State Street from 3300 South to 3900 South. Then they walked along both sides of Main Street, looking around parking areas and behind buildings. 

Around 3000 South, a man covered in blankets, was seen walking across Main Street. 

He was on his way to McDonald’s for warmth. Since he had taken the survey the first day, volunteers asked if he needed more blankets or gloves. He wanted to go to the  Homeless Resource Center and volunteers offered to get information to him about a pickup. However, he left before then. 

Day three 

Natalie Pinkney, South Salt Lake councilmember at-large, joined a group of volunteers on the third day. 

“A lot of times when we talk about homelessness it’s from a vague point of view that doesn’t center on humans and the count was a way to remind us that folks who are displaced are people too with stories, hopes, wishes and values. I wanted to get involved to meet them where they were and ask the question, ‘What can we do to help?’ and to be an ally that is willing to do whatever it takes to assist them in their journey,” Pinkney said.

The volunteer group got a new area to cover — from 700 East to 1300 East and 1700 South to 2100 South. Volunteers, including Siracuse, walked up 2100 South to 1300 East. They then walked through Westminster College and checked around a church. When they walked back along 1100 East near the Sugar House monument, they found Anthony (last name not given).

Anthony had spent the night in the temporary housing around the corner, but he was on his way to Smith’s for coffee. Two nights earlier, he spent the night in Sugar House Park. 

Anthony told volunteers that he has been homeless since 2008 and had always lived in Salt Lake County. 

“Being homeless is my full-time job,” Anthony said.

While being interviewed, he yelled at two men walking by. He said they were fake homeless people and were just getting free stuff.

“The way you can tell is how much they have on their back,” Anthony said. “See everything I own is in these two bags. They don’t have enough stuff.”

Because of alcohol abuse, Anthony is in and out of jail where he obtains treatment for his medical issues.

He told the story of being on TRAX and having a lady moving away from him.

“I guess she thought I was dirty, but I am not. It hurt me when she moved,” Anthony said.

Volunteers walked with him to Smith’s and he said goodbye with a handshake.

Pinkney concluded the morning by saying, “It was a great experience and I encourage folks who are apprehensive about homelessness, especially in regard to our new neighbors, to get involved, learn more and listen.”

Over 700 people statewide and over 500 people in Salt Lake County were surveyed. The data needs to be scrubbed for duplicates before the final number is released.

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