How the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting Utah’s homeless population

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SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 News) – While the Road Home reports zero new positive COVID-19 cases during the last five weeks in their shelters, advocates said Utah’s homeless population is facing many other unique challenges during the pandemic.

Before the onset of COVID-19, Salt Lake County leaders were already grappling with the area’s homeless crisis. But now one crisis is colliding with another.

“Experiencing homelessness is by all forms of measurement, a challenging situation regardless of what’s going on in the world. But during the coronavirus pandemic, it’s been exceptionally hard,” said Becky Pickle, President-elect for the Road Home’s Board of Trustees.

Pickle explained there was already a high demand for shelter space, but now with the pandemic, they are figuring out how to keep people apart at a safe distance.

“A few challenges have been just living in a congregate setting. Very difficult to social distance inside our facilities,” said Pickle. “But with the support and info from our partners, we have created many new procedures and spaces to help such as outside tents, additional areas to eat meals with more distance, hand washing stations, and canopies.”

Advocates said many of the Road Home’s clients are facing challenges with childcare as schools moved online since many of them work in what are considered essential jobs. Pickle explained that each school district has a homeless services liaison through McKinney Vento.

“They are all wonderful people that provide the support that they can, but was a major new challenge with children not attending school in-person this past spring and is still obviously a possibility this fall,” she said.

In mid-March, Pickle explained the Road Home’s in-person volunteer programs that encompass multiple churches, teams, and organizations that were suspended and put on hold. Since they typically rely on tens of thousands of volunteer hours each month, she said their staff has stepped up to volunteer in addition to working their normal shift.

“Our volunteers that help serve thousands of meals every day of the year through Catholic Community Services are no longer able to service in person. Donations from many organizations have been stopped, and staff who are in the CDC’s high-risk category has needed to quarantine for their own safety,” she said.

Brandon Stephens, an unsheltered resident said those living out on the streets are feeling the impact too.

“All of these businesses, agencies, and organizations started shutting down. That, in turn, shut down all of our services too that help us out as homeless. They took some of the food away, some of the food pantries, things like that, so it really put us on a strain too,” he said.

To adapt to this challenge, Pickle said they’ve used money from a GoFundMe to purchase meals in bulk from local restaurants and contacted other donors for help. Other volunteers have also devoted time to help with pick-up and drop-off.

Stephens said volunteer groups such as Addicts to Advocates, led by Billie Scott have helped him and his wife get by during this difficult time. They drop off food, water, and supplies to different camps around town daily.

Others said the pandemic has led to restraints on public facilities and services that they rely on daily.

“A lot of the places like that we get our water and food from like the convenient stores and stuff, you can’t bring in your own cup to put in ice and water. Not a lot of us have the whole friggen’ two dollars to pay for an empty cup for the ice water,” said an unsheltered resident who wanted to be identified only as “Sasquatch.”

Through partnerships through the county and multiple agencies, access to water and showers are now available for individuals experiencing homelessness Monday through Friday from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Fairmont Aquatic Center, Northwest, and Taylorsville Recreation Centers in addition to the Weigand Center.

Pickle said the best way the community can help is through donations. Since the onslaught of COVID-19, staff at the Road Home have seen a decrease in donations of in-kind items such as blankets, baby formula, and diapers. They also have a new need for cleaning and sanitation items such as hand sanitizer, Lysol, and Clorox wipes.

“Those experiencing homelessness have experienced all kinds of hardships and we need the community to come through and not give up on them. They have something to contribute. We need them,” she said.

To view the Road Home’s list of critically-needed items, COVID-needed items, and generally-needed items, click here.

Rosie Nguyen is an award-winning journalist who joined the ABC4 News team as a reporter in January 2018. In September 2020, she embarked on a new journey as the anchor for the CW30 News at 7 p.m. Although she’s not out in the field anymore, she is continuing her passion for social justice and community issues through the nightly “In Focus” discussions.
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