Homeless outreach worker Courtney Slater, left, chats with a woman who goes by the name Holly near a temporary camp along the Ogden River on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018. The latest report from Utah State shows that the homeless population around Ogden increased 30 percent from 2017 to 2018.
OGDEN — She emerged from her tent in the trees and climbed the short slope, groaning from pain in a leg.
“I forgot my cane,” said the woman, who agreed to speak to a Weber Housing Authority social worker checking on homeless people camping in the urban wilds.
The woman, who said her name was Holly, took a seat on a sheltered picnic table and talked about herself.
“I just try to get their story to find out what their needs are so I can try to help them,” said the social worker, Courtney Slater, who is at the forefront of efforts to make a difference against a disturbing rise in homelessness locally.
In the past year, the Lantern House shelter has seen record numbers of homeless, and related police and jail activity is up. Meanwhile, Slater and her colleagues have encountered more people living in camps around the pond and across the railroad tracks west of the shelter on 33rd Street.
Local officials can’t point to one cause, but most blame unprecedented high housing costs and the effects of Operation Rio Grande in Salt Lake City, a police crackdown in 2017 that drove some homeless north to Ogden and south to Provo.
“We have been seeing a huge increase in the rents in Weber County to the point they are no longer affordable and we can no longer help the homeless, or even the working poor,” said Slater’s boss, Housing Authority Executive Director Andi Beadles.
The fair-market rate for a two-bedroom apartment in the Ogden-Clearfield metro area has risen to $882.
“Everybody needs to be aware of this. We can’t get people off the streets if they can’t afford housing.”
Slater’s job is to offer help to people like Holly. The task is daunting.
Holly stands near her temporary camp along the Ogden River on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018. Holly, who declined to give her last name, recently started sleeping outside after a long period of couch surfing and staying with friends.
“My husband left me in 2015,” Holly told Slater. “We were married 33 years.”
She last had housing in February, when she was evicted from an apartment. She said she let some other homeless people stay with her, they stole some of her belongings, and the landlord didn’t like any of it.
“I grew up poor, became middle class and now I’m poor again,” Holly said.
A few nights ago, a man let her stay at his place, but he wanted sex, so she left.
“He’s old and I’m only 56,” she said. “What would I want with a 75-year-old?”
Slater gave Holly some bottled water and a can of corn for her and the man with her, who didn’t want to come out of the tent.
Slater handed her a business card and then continued her circuit of the area around the 21st Street Pond, which has a network of old homeless camps off the paved path between the pond and the Ogden River.
“I think she’s basically a couch surfer,” Slater said of Holly, referring to homeless who stay for short periods with friends or relatives between stints living in the trees.
She said homeless like the camps around the pond — “it’s serene by the river” — but most of the camps have been barren in the wake of sweeps by Ogden police.
Camping is illegal around the pond, and police enforce it. Plus, a homeless man was shot to death near the pond recently, allegedly by men who enjoyed harassing transients.
A sign warns against camping near the 21st St. Pond in Ogden on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018. The area used to be a popular location for homeless camps. Homeless outreach worker Courtney Slater says the area isn’t used as commonly anymore, although more people are currently homeless in the area.
Slater walked through several abandoned wooded camps. Some had crude fire pits and most were strewn with trash and discarded clothing, including child flip-flops and sunglasses.
She pointed to a crevice beneath a large fallen tree that someone had been using as a bed.
“I have no idea how people can sleep under there,” she said. “I would be scared to.”
Later, Slater approached a woman camped on the river bank on the West Haven side of the pond.
It had been her first night camping alone, said the woman, who identified herself as Irene.
She had been living with her boyfriend in his truck for three months until the day before. She didn’t explain what happened.
“This is a way different thing,” Irene said, looking around at the tiny camp. “It’s a whole different kind of feeling when you’re by yourself.”
Slater asked her what she needed, and she said cleanliness was at the top of the list.
“I can’t get clean to save my life,” said Irene, and Slater handed her a hygiene kit.
Irene said she ended up in Utah after being homeless for several months in California. She had been strung out on heroin there.
Homeless outreach worker Courtney Slater looks over the site of a former homeless camp near the Ogden River on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018. Slater walks around the Ogden area several times a week meeting with people who are sleeping outdoors.
Later, Slater said it’s rare to find a homeless woman camping alone.
“Women tend to be the most vulnerable,” Slater said. “They always have horrific, traumatic stories. I know they are the most likely to be hurt or murdered or sexually assaulted.”
The women are prey for homeless men or those who might offer them a place to stay.
“There are so many men out there who have nothing to lose,” Slater said. “They trade sex for housing. A lot of these women have nothing, but they still have something they can give them.”
In the trees across the tracks from Lantern House, Slater found a man and woman breaking camp for the day. They were receptive to Slater’s explanations of possibilities for housing.
The housing agency provides vouchers to help homeless get into federally assisted housing.
“Do they care about drug charges?” the young woman asked.
Slater said it depends on the severity, and the woman said she had a record of misdemeanor narcotics possession. Slater said it probably wouldn’t be an insurmountable barrier.
Slater, 24, has been on the job 10 months after graduating from Weber State University. She’s now studying for a social work master’s degree from the University of Nevada-Reno.
She makes the rounds of camps two or three times a week and spends the rest of her time working with clients to obtain housing. She also follows up with those who haven’t been able to land an apartment, so the agency can stay in touch to offer further help.
“One of the best feelings is to see a homeless person be shown their new apartment, and they are just so excited,” Slater said.
Slater and Beadles said that in the past year, they’ve been dealing with more homeless who are new to the area.
“We have lots of people around here who have been homeless forever,” Slater said, but Irene and the young couple were representative of the increase in newcomers.
“The new group seems to be a rougher crowd,” Beadles said.
The most recent statewide report of homelessness showed overall numbers were relatively unchanged from the year before, “but that’s not what we’re seeing,” Beadles said. “We’re seeing an increase.”
She said Ogden police have reported “an increase in the number of arrests of (homeless) people not from this area.”
The Ogden Police Department did not respond to requests for information about its involvement in homeless issues.
But Mark Johnson, the city’s chief administrative officer, said homeless problems in Ogden are “up considerably” and demand a lot of police and fire department time.
Asked about the effects of Operation Rio Grande, Johnson said, “For a city our size, we spend a lot of money on homelessness. We consider homelessness as more of a state issue.”
He added, “I’m hoping the state will come up with better solutions. I don’t know that Operation Rio Grande was very successful, other than that they dispersed them out of their area.”
According to the 2018 state report on homelessness, Salt Lake County’s total of unsheltered people — those living in makeshift camps, abandoned buildings and vehicles — was down to 136, from 161 the year before.
But across the rest of the state, that count boomed to 284 unsheltered, from 130 in 2017.
Johnson, Beadles and Jay Stretch, Lantern House director, said the local homeless agencies work well together on housing, policing and other issues.
“We’re currently in the process of developing a homeless plan so that we can avoid what’s happening in Salt Lake City, so we don’t end up in a crisis situation here,” Beadles said.
A torn cardboard sign sits beside an old campfire near the Ogden River on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018. The most recent homeless survey, in January 2018, counted 376 homeless individuals in Weber and Morgan Counties.
Safety is a top priority for Beadles as agency workers serve the homeless.
“Before, we kind of knew everybody, and which areas to stay away from,” Beadles said. “Now it’s in flux and we have new demographics. I don’t know what to expect and don’t know exactly what I’m sending my outreach workers into.”
Slater said she never goes out alone and has had no problems.
“Don’t make yourself vulnerable, and don’t just wander into a camp,” she said. “And usually people don’t want to be mean to the person who can give them housing.”