The official numbers show that local homelessness has held steady, but those who work with the homeless say that is only part of the picture. The statewide point-in-time homelessness survey, conducted on Jan. 24, found 12 unsheltered people in Moab in 2018, the same as in 2017, according to Sharon Relph, director of the Interact program, who is in charge of local PIT survey efforts. However, Relph and others said the survey does not include incarcerated and chronically homeless people or those with temporary housing at a motel or on a friend’s couch.
This year, three homeless people were incarcerated at the time of the count and others were temporarily housed.
“Seekhaven always seems to be full; the waiting lists to get into any kind of subsidized housing are long, and it is difficult to find something affordable to live in. Most of the folks we deal with at Interact have a very low or no monthly income. It is extremely challenging to house folks in Moab,” Relph said.
There is also a seasonal change in homelessness in Moab.
“We don’t see as many homeless people in January as you may when it’s warmer,” Relph said. “A lot of times folks will head to a warmer area and then return to Moab when it warms up. But there are folks that winter in communities without having any available housing and in Moab it’s considerably difficult to get housing because it’s so expensive.”
A 2017 federal study found that homelessness increased .7 percent last year, the first increase since the Great Recession. The trend may be driven by skyrocketing housing prices on the West Coast. In Utah, homelessness increased about 1.5 percent according to the 2017 Comprehensive Report on Homelessness point-in-time (PIT) survey.
In Moab, the area’s homeless coordinating committee is working to address the issue. The group includes representatives of the city, county and police and of social service organizations around Moab.
Coordination of efforts
Mary McGann chairs both the Grand County Council and the homeless coordinating committee. McGann said that committee is working on a database to help agencies better coordinate services for the homeless individuals they work with, among other work.
“We’re always looking at ways to find how to house homeless people in the winter because of the cold and the health issues and the safety issues as well as what to do with the health issues in the summer with homeless people camping along the creek bed,” McGann said. “We’re looking for solutions to that, and the committee works very hard to communicate what is happening in the community so that other agencies know what resources are available.”
The city has no homeless shelter but advocates came close to opening one several years ago, according to Sara Melnicoff, founder of Moab Solutions and a member of the homeless coordinating committee. Melnicoff said that one objection to the shelter was the idea that it would attract more homeless to the area.
“It’s getting harder here because everyone is trying to upgrade and charge top dollar for things,” Melnicoff said. “There’s less available and every piece of land is getting built on. So it’s a little tricky but if we don’t address the issue, it makes the whole community a poorer place.”
The St. George way
Carol Hollowell, the executive director of Switchpoint shelter in St. George, heard the same “build it and they will come” objection when that shelter was being set up, she said.
“What we ended up doing is we have a time limit,” Hollowell said. “If you’re not from Washington County then you get 48 hours because we don’t have enough resources or room to handle everybody that just wants to come, and that really alleviated that problem of getting all of a sudden a swarm of a whole bunch of people say, from Colorado, coming in … we were very clear in our policy on how we were going to serve people.”
Hollowell said the St. George shelter has had a good track record of helping homeless people find a stable situation with a range of services beyond a meal and a bed. When people check in to the shelter, they are connected with a case manager. That case manager puts the individual in contact with organizations that can help them address the root issues that led them to be homeless.
“If you know the barriers then you can hopefully problem-solve faster,” Hollowell said.
Melnicoff said she had not seen a sizable increase in the homeless population, contradicting the narrative that others presented. However, she said the community does need to figure out a response to the homeless currently here.
“We don’t have the proper response for them as a community,” Melnicoff said. “When you just ignore things, they generally get worse.”
While the homeless coordinating committee works on a coordinated strategy for addressing homelessness, the Moab City Police have had to develop a policy in the meantime.
A multi-pronged approach
The police department has a multi-pronged approach to addressing homelessness, Moab Police Chief Jim Winder said.
“The police department’s first and foremost objective is public safety for the residents while maintaining the civil rights and, frankly, the humanity of these individuals,” Winder said.
The police are marking the footpath with numbers so that people can report the locations of camps or public disturbances that occur.
“When we find a camp, it is imperative that we not only have the individuals vacate the camp but that the area is cleaned up and essentially rehabilitated,” Winder said. “If you just tell them to move on, the problem is that the next individuals that come by and see that will repopulate it … We recognize the reality of people’s rights relative to their personal property and the difficulties that this strategy involves because simply telling people to move on perpetually is a problem, right? The real question becomes, where do they go? That is a question that I think in the medium term, we here in Moab are going to have to answer.”
The police are also working with private property owners and the city to clear overgrowth from the trails and remove areas that are obscured from view where the homeless might set up camps.
The third point of the police strategy is increased patrols along walkways in town, on foot and by bicycle.
“Our uniforms we’ve changed to be much more obvious and bright-colored so people can see us and feel comfortable with that. We’re going to be doing a lot of patrolling in those particular areas and the objective there is to ensure that individuals that might want to engage in aberrant behavior go away from that particular site or we are responding to them much more effectively,” Winder said.
Winder also suggested moving the liquor store.
“Because of its position almost dead-smack in the middle of the walkway, it allows for foot traffic to come through there,” Winder said. “[People] get the alcohol, which is a big problem. Then when they are consuming it they are right in the town center. I know it’s not a popular concept ... but I think it’s a conversation to have.”
Winder also acknowledged drawbacks to the police’s current strategy.
“The question becomes, if you just keep pushing the balloon everywhere, the balloon bulges elsewhere,” Winder said. “At the heart of that has to be how do you let some air out of the balloon ... and that conversation is a collective one that deals with Medicaid expansion, it deals with funding for statewide homelessness coordination issues, it deals with every community being willing and able to address the issues locally rather than not doing anything and trying to drive them on.”
Homelessness: Our Facebook readers offer their insight
The Times-Independent ran a non-scientific Facebook poll between Monday, March 12 and Wednesday, March 14 asking the question: With the coming of spring, and with the high season almost upon us, have you noticed an uptick in the presence of the homeless in the area over previous years?
We have printed some of the responses of readers below.
“I think that Moab had always had homeless and transient people but with more development and an increase in our tourists they no longer have discreet places to be. Places like the wetlands, the power dam, and Kane Creek used to be places a person could camp, or spend the day without having to pay or be seen by a million people. Also, and this is a big one ... lots of working locals who have lived here all their lives can no longer afford a place to live full time. More of our workforce being siphoned into “affordable housing,” which is run by the state, families have to follow strict rules denying them the ability to let a family member stay for more than a day or two, or sublet a room to anyone. We are running out of options. These aren’t homeless people, these are our neighbors!”
“The overnight rentals have destroyed Moab for people that can afford to rent or buy homes, such a shame. There also needs to be a homeless shelter for anyone else in need too. #shame.”
“What I have seen over the last few years is more working people camping out and driving into town to work because they cannot afford housing.”
"… The majority of jobs make peanuts as compared to the cost of living. Housing, food, gas, electric, medical long ago exceeded what the majority of Moabites can afford."
“I can’t say that I have noticed an increase in homelessness in downtown Moab but I avoid downtown as much as possible especially now that the “busy” season is beginning. Several years ago, homelessness and vagrancy was very visible along the Mill Creek trails. There were deaths at times and some kind-hearted people tried to help them and probably still try to help. I don’t notice the homeless or indigent congregating by the trailhead near Zax as they once did but as I say I am not downtown as much … Housing of any kind is hard to come by and affordable for the work forces that keep the tourist business humming is quite impossible. My opinion.”
“Nightly rentals are definitely the reason for an increase. Anyone who says different obviously isn’t paying attention to their surroundings.”