SALT LAKE CITY — In advance of a winter storm, homeless outreach workers walked the banks of the Jordan River Thursday, offering food, gloves, hats and sleeping bags to men and women living on the river bank.
A man living in a tent who identified himself as Terrence gratefully accepted a sleeping bag, gloves and hats for him and his companion from a Volunteers of America worker.
Terrence, who said he is from Florida, has lived along the river in a tent for about 1 1/2 months. His plan for weathering the storm, which could blanket the Salt Lake Valley with three inches of snow and bring sustained winds up to 40 mph, involved stringing up tarps from a tree to act as a second roof over the couple's tent and snuggling up under blankets.
Terrence said he prefers living in the tent to staying in shared living shelters that can attract people dealing drugs, people using drugs as well as people who don't know how to manage their money.
"It's like putting someone with a gambling habit in a casino. That's why me and my wife decided to camp and be by ourselves. We'll do it this way," he said.
"If it gets too cold, we'll go in the shelter."
Because of 10-year initiative to end chronic homelessness in Utah, there is capacity in the system to accommodate Terrence, his partner and others experiencing short-term homelessness.
Since 2005, Utah has experienced a 72 percent decrease in the number of chronically homeless people in state, according to a report released Thursday.
Federal, state and local partners are employing a "housing first" approach to address chronic homelessness, which the federal government defines as a homeless person with a disabling condition who has been continuously homeless for a year or more or a like individual who has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years.
Once people are in permanent housing, they receive structured case management to address the issues that contributed to their homelessness such as addiction, untreated physical and/or mental illness, poor education or domestic violence.
Gordon Walker, director of the Division of Housing and Community Development, said he believes the goal of ending chronic homelessness in Utah by 2014 is achievable.
"What we have done is pull high frequency chronic homeless people out of the system. It makes it so there's capacity for others," he said.
As more space in emergency shelters has been freed up by placing chronically homeless people in supportive housing, the space has been remodeled to accommodate families that use it on a temporary basis. Most families in Utah's system of providers spend an average of 26 days in shelter, he said.
Another measure of the success of the initiative is The Road Home has not had to send single males to its winter overflow shelter for the past two years because there was sufficient space in its downtown facility.
Walker credits community partners who have worked collaboratively since the 10-year goal of ending chronic homelessness was announced in 2005.
"My biggest fear in the beginning was we'd make goals that others wouldn't buy into," Walker said. "That hasn't happened. We've come a long way."
Overall, homelessness in Utah increased 15 percent over the previous year, the report said.
Walker said a future goal is to further develop an array of housing options to better meet the needs of individuals. Salt Lake, for instance, has emergency shelter options, shared living models such as Palmer Court apartments and individual housing units scattered across the valley.
The latter would suit Terrence, who said he chose to leave home to escape family members who are addicts and have made poor life choices.
While he was anxious about the coming winter storm, he said he prefers to pitch a tent in an out-of-the-way spot than to confront large concentrations of people struggling with their own issues.
"It's just not good for people trying to get better," he said.
The new report says about 13 percent of the 3,527 people who were homeless in Utah on a single night's count in January were unsheltered, some 475 statewide. That means they were living in conditions not suitable for habitation such as cars, abandoned buildings and outdoors.