A statewide count of Utah’s homeless population is underway
At 4 a.m. when it’s still pitch dark outside, Kena Mathews packs up her gear in the back of an Orem City minivan, for what’s known as the ‘point-in-time’ count. It’s 21 degrees, cold enough to make teeth chatter.
Mathews is the community services manager for Orem City and co-chair of the Mountainland Continuum of Care. She’s accompanied by a police detective, a community service provider and a mental health advocate. They are one of the many teams fanning out across the state to count unsheltered people over the next two days.
Every January, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires groups that receive federal funding count how many people are experiencing homelessness in the nation. The count helps HUD assess the funding needed in these communities.
“It's good to find them because it helps with money coming into the community to serve our homeless people and also to be able to get them resources,” Mathews said.
Mathews said she’s been doing these counts for several years. She said an early start is required but it also helps better identify people who don’t have a home.
Over the last two years, she said these counts have been different because of the pandemic. They are taking more health precautions. Groups going out are not knocking on car doors, like they usually do, or bringing in student volunteers from the surrounding universities.
She said COVID-19 has also affected the accuracy of these counts. Mathews said they plan to have an asterisk next to the numbers that are set to come out in April.
“It is concerning,” Mathews said. “Luckily we can do a lot of surveying at the homeless service providers. So people are coming in there and we're getting those totals. Last year, we didn't go out at all. This year we are limiting our exposure. Hopefully, next year we'll be back to where we need to be, but it definitely does hurt the numbers.”
Mathews weaves around the town, stopping at places that unsheltered people frequent like the Provo Canyon, shopping center parking lots, parks, and a 24/7 laundromat.
Anneliese Langs, police detective for Orem City’s Mental Health Response Team, conducted a survey with some of the people they found. It asks a series of questions aimed to better understand people’s situations and demographics.
“Did you guys sleep out here tonight?” Langs asked one woman camped out behind some trees.
“Yes madam. Attempting to. It was hard to sleep, it was so cold,” the woman answered, shivering in a layered coat.
After she finished each survey, Langs handed out a McDonald’s gift card, a UTA fare pass and a bag filled with hygiene products.
In the three-and-half-hour period Langs counted four people and surveyed two of them. She said it can be hard to identify people who are homeless in Orem. Last October, service providers found 372 people were experiencing homelessness in Utah County.
“We have a lot of people who are probably homeless that you're not going to see,” she said. “Like out in tents, a lot of the people that I deal with, in my position they're living in sheds that people are allowing them to live in or they're living out of their cars. And so you're not going to see them out in the open like you do in some other areas.”
Mathews said she was surprised they found so few people based on previous years, but considered the day an overall success.
As the sun peeked through the mountains, the team headed back to the Orem City Center parking lot. Mathews’s group meets again for the next two days to continue their count.