How many people are experiencing homelessness in Grand County?
Members of the Grand County Homeless Coordinating Committee (GCHCC) say it’s difficult to know.
The committee — a coalition that includes Moab-based nonprofits, local government representatives and the regional housing authority — gathers on the second Wednesday of every month in a Zions Bank meeting room to coordinate their efforts to address the issue of homelessness in the county. The meetings are open to the public.
On Jan. 24 each year, the members collaborate to administer the Point-in-Time (PIT) survey. The primary questions is, “Where did you sleep on the night of Jan. 23?” The objective of the survey is to provide a “snapshot” of how many persons were homeless in Grand County at that time.
The survey is required for the group to receive funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The results of the survey are tied to how much funding is received, but committee members are concerned that the survey cannot paint an accurate picture of the local homeless population.
“Part of the trouble we’ve had with the PIT (survey) is, we are not able to count people who are in jail or people who are staying on couches,” said Sara Melnicoff, the founder of the nonprofit Moab Solutions. “It’s a cold time of the year so people are indoors.”
The survey would generate much higher numbers if it was completed in the summer rather than in the third week of January, she said.
And, Melnicoff said, while the committee goes out and finds as many homeless individuals as possible to count in the survey, no one knows the true number of people living in their cars.
“People don’t really want to be known about, because it’s illegal to camp within city limits. They tend to keep a low profile,” she said.
According to their website, HUD defines the term “homeless” as living in places not meant for human habitation, shelters, transitional housing and exiting an institution they lived in for up to 90 days. The term also includes people losing their primary residence within 14 days who lack the resources to obtain housing. Families that include children in unstable housing and people fleeing from domestic violence also fall under the homeless category.
The committee will take one week to gather the data beginning on Jan. 24.
Sharon Relph, director of the Interact Clubhouse, said agencies around town — including Moab Veteran’s Affairs, the health department, schools, hospitals, and law enforcement — are referring homeless people to the committee.
She encourages anyone who is homeless to take the survey, and for anyone who knows of a person experiencing homelessness to encourage them to take the survey.
According to data from the state website jobs.utah.gov, there were 12 unsheltered, and seven staying in shelters or transitional housing, for a total of 19 homeless people in Grand County during the 2018 PIT count. This was up from 11 total in 2016.
There are several reasons for homelessness in Grand County, said Tammy Chapman, a case manager at the Interact Clubhouse and GCHCC member. She said the Interact Clubhouse has funding for homeless individuals with mental illness to receive mental health treatment and treatment for substance misuse.
Chapman said that one factor is the low number of affordable housing units in Moab.
“We have a lot of homeless (persons) in Moab that are actually here working, especially for seasonal work, but they are living in their vehicles because they can’t afford to get housing here,” she said.
Grand County Council member Mary McGann is the GCHCC chairperson. She has been involved with the committee for about three years, and is currently working with Housing Authority of Southeast Utah Director Ben Riley to get U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) vouchers for homeless veterans, though with the government shutdown, the timeline is uncertain.
McGann said one of the group’s recent accomplishments was creating a database called Moab Cares. It is completed, but usage is still ramping up, she said.
The purpose, McGann said, is to track homelessness-related services by the agencies that are part of the GCHCC. The tracking system does not use the names of people seeking services, only initials and birth dates. She said this will allow the committee to see when services are being duplicated, and to make sure resources are being allocated in the best way.
McGann said that affordable housing would help those who are both homeless and working, but said that Moab needs better options for the “chronic homeless.”
“When somebody has a mental illness, and they’re homeless —which is pretty common, especially with our transient homeless population — the instability of being homeless, the lack of nutrition, the lack of medical care, the lack of mental health services, the lack of medications (means) they’re just not able to function to the point where they even could get housing in the first place,” she said.
And, Melnicoff agreed, and said she’d like to see a drop-in resource center “where people can sit, catch their breath, look for work, get supportive services.” She would like to see those services open to everyone and not only to people who may be suffering from mental illness.
Melnicoff added, “a couple of emergency beds for when it’s really cold out, so people don’t die.”
A PERSONAL ACCOUNT
Derick Thompson knows what it’s like to be homeless in Moab.
After a stint in jail due to charges connected with a substance use disorder, Thompson was ordered through drug court to pay fees, attend therapy and support groups and find work. But achieving these goals became difficult.
Alienated from his family, Thompson said he had “nowhere to go.”
Four Corners Community Behavioral Health assessed Thompson’s situation and found that he fit the criteria to be placed in one of its residences. None of the residences were available and he was put on a waiting list.
“I actually slept at the park right next to Four Corners for about two and a half to three months,” he said.
He said he had to sleep on the slide in the park so that he wouldn’t get wet when the sprinklers came on.
Without a job, he had no way to pay for housing and got behind on paying his court fees. He had nowhere to wash his clothes, which made preparing for a job interview difficult.
“And when you have a record, no one wants to hire you,” Thompson said.
He said a Four Corners Community Behavioral Health employee gave him quarters, allowing him to do his own laundry, but then there was the matter of how to store his clothes where they wouldn’t get wet or dirty. He kept his few possessions in a backpack.
He got a tent set up in patch of woods near Kane Creek Boulevard. Even with a tent, Thompson said it could be cold and damp at night.
But, eventually, a residence opened up and a Four Corners Community Behavioral Health employee showed him his new bedroom.
“I was so excited just to have a room,” Thompson said. “I was stoked.”
Today, Thompson said, he is substance free and employed. He patched a relationship with a family member who at one time had a restraining order against him.
He said the assistance he received has supported him in rebuilding his life and getting through dark times.
“It was a huge help,” Thompson said. “It kept me fighting, in a way.”
To participate in the survey, contact the Interact Club during business hours through Jan. 31 by calling 435-259-7340.
Community’s needs are greater than what January ‘snapshot’ reveals, advocates say
“People don’t really want to be known about, because it’s illegal to camp within city limits. They tend to keep a low profile.”