Homeless families in Utah reaching ‘crisis,’ as advocates push for solutions

Oct 5, 2022, 7:37 PM | Updated: Oct 6, 2022, 11:11 am

SALT LAKE COUNTY, Utah — At an undisclosed location in Salt Lake County, Wendy Garvin makes frequent checks to a group of tents set up under the shade of a few trees.

She’s used to making the rounds to different camps as the executive director for Unsheltered Utah, a small volunteer organization that helps connect unsheltered residents with food and supplies.

But this particular camp is especially concerning to her.

“I think it really hits us in the heart,” she said.

A mom and her young children live in the tents, she explained. The youngest child is 18 months old, and the woman is eight months pregnant. A shopping cart filled with boxed and canned food, as well as diapers and wipes is parked outside the tent. Children’s toys sit on the dirt outside, and clothing items like a shirt with dinosaurs are visible in the small mesh porch area of the tent.

Garvin explained that the family calls that camp home because they currently don’t have anywhere else to go. Unsheltered Utah is seeing an increase in families with situations similar to that one these days, as the cost of rent rises along with the cost of living.

“We are seeing a lot more recent evictions,” Garvin said. “We’re seeing a lot more people who have never experienced homelessness before, who are now living on the street, or in tents, or in RVs. And we are seeing more families on the street.”

As Unsheltered Utah works with these families, Garvin explained how they’re also seeing another unfortunate trend.

“It used to be if we found a family, we could get them inside fairly rapidly. These days, we don’t have any options statewide,” she said.

There’s just not enough buildings, shelters, or hotel vouchers to go around, Garvin explained. Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, heard about the issue and began looking into what is going on.

After making phone calls and reaching out to key people, he said he was told there is no capacity right now in the shelter system for families. The shelter is filling up faster than they’ve ever seen before, he said.

“The two primary homeless shelters along the Wasatch Front are currently full and have been full for months, and they’ve had to start turning families away,” he said. The shelter in Midvale, Eliason said, has turned away around two dozen families over the past month.

Hotel vouchers are maxed out, he said, so that’s not a viable option for families either.

During the last legislative session, Eliason talked about how they passed a bill he sponsored that puts a process in place to come up with an overflow option in advance of the winter season commencing.

That process has led to the anticipated opening of an overflow facility in Millcreek in the coming weeks. But that overflow shelter is for single individuals only and not for families, he said.

“At the time, that need didn’t really exist,” he said. “But with the rental crisis the way it is, it’s now a bigger crisis than I think anybody could have imagined.”

With a crisis looming, Eliason said state and local leaders need to act quickly, especially as winter approaches and camping outside becomes even more dangerous for unsheltered families.

“I think it needs to be all hands on deck,” he said. “Local leaders, and to an extent potentially state leaders, and philanthropic community needs to come together.”

Garvin hopes for the sake of families like the pregnant woman and her young children, a temporary solution is figured out soon.

“There’s fear,” Garvin said, of what she sees in unsheltered families. “For the safety of their family… for their ability to provide for their kids day-to-day.”

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Homeless families in Utah reaching ‘crisis,’ as advocates push for solutions