HOUSING + HOMELESSNESS

State and local governments do not track homeless deaths in Utah

May 9, 2023, 11:31 AM | Updated: 12:30 pm

Salt Lake City could soon have a permanent homeless camp. Victoria Petro, Salt Lake City Council me...

FILE: Tony Lambert moves some of his belongings at his homeless encampment in SLC on Feb 2., 2023 (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

(Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY– Why isn’t there an official count of how many people die homeless in Utah? After one of the snowiest winters on record, at least one advocate wants to know. 

The Utah Homelessness Services Coordinator, Wayne Niederhauser, told KSL NewsRadio about this lack of accounting in February. “The only tally that we have is that Fourth Street Clinic has a list that they keep,” said Niederhauser.

“I don’t think it’s real accurate. And every year we memorialize those who died in homelessness a couple days before Christmas.”

The number of people who die homeless in Utah are likely inaccurate

Last year’s memorial was a candlelight vigil on December 21, the Winter Solstice. Dozens of mourners and advocates gathered to read the names of at least 159 dead Utahns. Niederhauser said he thinks the true number is higher. 

The Salt Lake Tribune has verified that neither Salt Lake City police, city government, or the Office of the Utah Medical Examiner (UME) has a count either. Niederhauser is pushing the UME to collect data on the housing status of deceased individuals, but that doesn’t mean his office will be able to use the data. 

A Utah law in the way 

Utah law prohibits the UME from sharing a deceased individual’s personal information with anyone other than relatives, legal guardians, criminal attorneys, physicians, and law enforcement. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, this rule blocked Niederhauser last December, when he requested the personal data of five unhoused Utahns found dead in the same week in Salt Lake City.

Those five deaths in quick succession spurred Niederhauser and Salt Lake City officials to create an extra “flex” shelter for times of severe cold. When the state would order a “code blue,” up to 120 beds would become available at libraries and recreation centers in the Millcreek area, plus 340 more across Salt Lake County. Altogether with Salt Lake City’s three homeless resource centers, that made for about 1,100 available beds. 

Still, aggregate information might be publicly available next year. A spokesperson for the Utah Department of Health and Human Services told the Salt Lake Tribune that UME is in training to better track the housing status of deceased individuals. 

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State and local governments do not track homeless deaths in Utah