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Volunteer Count Of Homeless Population Underway In Wintry Salt Lake County

Rocio Hernandez / KUER
Rhonda Robison, Shawn Spalding and Brooke Pyper look for people experiencing homelessness near Sugar House Park.

The moon was still out, but it provided little light to Shawn Spalding while he walked through a park in the Sugar House neighborhood at 4 a.m. on Friday.

Spalding, an outreach worker with Volunteers of America, Utah, navigated through the dark and found a Native American couple, hidden by shrubs and trees, sleeping on a blanket atop cold snow.

He woke them up and asked if they could take part in the point-in-time estimates of homeless people in Salt Lake County, an annual survey that takes place every January nationwide.

“It’s important to know how many homeless are out there and also to know what their needs are,” Spalding said.

The survey allows homeless service providers and volunteers to count how many people experienced homelessness on a single night, a snapshot that the Department of Housing and Urban Development collects from each state for its annual report.


Volunteers also ask questions about an individual's pets, substance or alcohol abuse issues and whether they've been victimized.


Spalding spent Friday morning driving around Sugar House with Brooke Pyper and Rhonda Robison. They passed through three parks before they spotted Steve Kallas pushing a small shopping cart on a sidewalk.

Kallas, 51, told Robison he has been homeless since 2016.

When asked how he become homeless, he said it was a long story.

“I’m here by choice, but a lot of people aren’t the same," Kallas said. "They are here under different circumstances, unfortunate circumstances."

After completing the survey, Robison handed Kallas warm socks and a gift card. She and Spalding both left Kallas their contact info in case he needed to reach out to them for help.

Friday was the second day that volunteers combed through various neighborhoods in Salt Lake County searching for people living on the streets.

As of Friday, they counted 294 people that are without shelter in the county. Many of them are people who were unable to keep up with rising housing costs, said Sue Ativalu, the division director of residential housing with the local VOA.

“With the rent increasing, people are finding themselves in a homeless situation or all the safety nets that they had previously cannot house them for whatever reason,” Ativalu said.

Last year, there were almost 2,900 homeless people in Utah, according to the 2018 Annual Homeless Assessment survey by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. It was a slight increase from 2017.

But the surveys are not always accurate because not everyone wants to participate.

During the two hours that Robison and her team worked on Friday, two people refused to take the survey. One man started to get angry while case worker Brooke Pyper asked him questions.


Despite occasional pushback, Pyper said she is honored to be working with this vulnerable population.

“I love the rawness of it," Pyper said. “It’s definitely very fulfilling, and very hard and emotionally draining but at the end of the day, I’ve really enjoyed my experiences and doing what I am doing.”

Ativalu said she hopes the opening of the three new home shelters will bring some relief to the homeless in Salt Lake County.

The shelter in South Salt Lake may open in September, said Jonathan Hardy, the state’s Housing and Community Development Division director, during a press conference this week.

The other two shelters are expected to open this summer.


Rocio is coming to KUER after spending most of her life under the blistering Las Vegas sun and later Phoenix. She earned bachelor’s degrees in journalism and Spanish at the University of Nevada, Reno. She did brief stints at The Associated Press, the Las Vegas Review-Journal and Reno Public Radio. She enjoys wandering through life with her husband and their toy poodle.
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