Each year, homeless service providers and volunteers in Utah rise early to comb local communities to get a sense of how many people are homeless. It’s part of Utah’s annual point-in-time count.
It’s 5:30 in the morning and Volunteers of America workers Sanela Piragic and Larry Mullin are in search of anyone who’s sleeping outdoors on Salt Lake City’s west side. About 20 groups are out in force. When it’s cold outside, people fill the shelters, but some can’t or choose not to.
Near the railroad tracks in an open field there is an older man sleeping in a tent. He welcomes us over as Piragic kneels down in the snow to shake his hand.
The man says he’s been there a couple of months and he travels daily to the Home Depot more than 20 blocks south to find work. Piragic completes a questionnaire with him that takes about 15 minutes, then we say goodbye and leave with him a gift card, some bottled water and warm socks.
We drive several blocks south to find another man beneath an overpass, busking before dawn. Mark Hofheins has been on the streets off and on for two years. He says he uses meth periodically to cope, especially when he’s cold and can’t find a place to sleep.
“Past month and half probably has been the hardest, so I’ve probably been using the most,” Hofheins says. “But once I get back in the shelter, because I got kicked out, once I get back in the shelter on Monday, on the first, I should be alright though. It should be a lot better.”
Hofheins says he has a mental condition that he treats diligently with medication. Back in the car, Larry Mullin says it’s actually remarkable that Hofheins is able to hold on to those pills.
“The problem being homeless, were he to get robbed, anything could happen to that medication, then what does that look like when he’s off his meds and how does he compensate,” Mullin says.
Mullin says the point-in-time count is a way to connect people with services and to give to the state for statistical purposes. The total number of people counted in the sweep will be released next fall.