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VA Salt Lake City Health Care System

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2018 Point-In-Time Count

Homeless outreach worker holds entrance to helter open.

VA Salt Lake City homeless outreach worker holds entrance to shelter open as colleague interviews homeless person inside.

By Jeremy M. Laird
Monday, March 5, 2018

Annual PIT count helps VA Salt Lake City accomplish goal of ending Veteran homeless while building community relationships

Bundled up in cold-weather clothing, an army of volunteers march out into the dimly lit areas of Salt Lake City at 4 in the morning in search of the city’s homeless. Among that army, a dozen or so volunteers from the VA Salt Lake City Health Care System—deployed as part of the annual point-in-time (PIT) homeless count.

The PIT count is a federally mandated count of the sheltered and unsheltered homeless people on a single-night in January. From January 25-27, the volunteers scour Salt Lake for three early mornings to seek out and count folks who spent the night of Wednesday, January 24th on the streets. 

“We are out here because we want to end Veteran homelessness,” says Edward Varley, a VA Salt Lake City Homeless Program social worker, as he and his team head under an I-15 overpass around 4:30 on the morning of the 26th.  They cross train tracks used by Front Runner and Amtrak, and come to a BMX course. Weaving their way around mounds of dirt jumps, they come across a small encampment not visible from the street despite being just 50 yards away. The camp houses three homeless couples—one in a tent and the two others trying to sleep under mounds of blankets with tarps on top.

Ed and his co-workers Sam Vincent and Meisha Jensen announce themselves as “homeless outreach” and ask if the couples are interested in answering questions for the PIT survey. The man they encounter first agrees. While Ed interviews him, Sam and Meisha chat with the other couples. Only one other couple consents to the survey. As cars and semis whiz by on I-15 overhead, Ed and Meisha work their way through the 22-question survey. The most important for VA, number 10, “Have you ever served active duty in the United States Armed Forces?”

A Front Runner train barrels by on its way to pick up morning commuters as the group wraps up their interviews. The VA team gives the couples some food, water, blankets, socks, and $5 gift cards to a fast food place and head out to find the next group. The scene replays itself three more times throughout the next couple of hours, as one group of homeless folks point Ed, Meisha, and Sam to another homeless encampment.

In the span of 2 and a half hours, they find 18 folks living on the streets and complete 11 surveys. None of the 11 are Veterans, but VA still gains a lot by having staff volunteer for the yearly count.

“The numbers we generate here from counting those vulnerable unsheltered people,” says Ed. “HUD [Department of Housing & Urban Development] uses those numbers to allocate resources... So, the better job we do of finding really vulnerable people, people experiencing homelessness, getting these surveys done—theoretically the more funding that could come into supply HUD/VASH [Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing] vouchers for my program or housing vouchers for a community partners.”

Building those community relationships is also a valuable side-effect of the PIT. “Without those relationships, housing just doesn’t happen,” says Ed emphatically. “No independent agency can do it alone. It’s a team effort.”

Upholding Valor Podcast on 2018 PIT Count. Video shot & edited by Tyler Moore.

While the volunteers are out scouring the streets, a VA team remains behind at the PIT count headquarters. Natalie Pugmire is the point person for VA at PIT HQ.

“If anyone comes across a Veteran, when they are out there providing the survey,” says Natalie, “and they are willing to have someone come talk to them from VA…The Volunteers can call me and I will go out and talk to them about what services might be available.”

She isn’t called out this morning, but the volunteer teams return with 10 names of potential Veterans. “I looked them up in our system,” says Natalie pointing to her laptop. “Many were not in our system.”

“If I am able to verify, that yes, indeed, they are eligible for VA health care. I would do an assessment with them which is asking questions about the current situation—some background information: what led them to be in the current situation. Then I would take the information back to my team and staff them and see what avenue would be appropriate. Rather it be transitional housing or permanent housing.”

Natalie is particularly interested in a Veteran she talked to during the 2016 PIT count. She put him in touch with her homeless outreach team, he was referred for permanent housing, and that’s the last they saw of him.

“I am glad he popped back up,” Natalie says. “Sad to see that he is still homeless. I definitely want to offer him service again.”

“I think it is vital for us—especially for us at VA—to follow up with people like that… and keep offering. We can only do so much. We can’t force anyone. We can keep asking them if they are interested, and do what we can.”

The VA volunteers leave PIT headquarters just before 7 and head off for their jobs at VA Salt Lake City knowing they’ll repeat the same process the next morning. But for Natalie and Ed, who have both participated in the count for over 5 years and plan on participating for as long as can, the personal sacrifice is well worth it and helps reconnect them with the people they serve everyday—homeless Veterans.

Currently, VA Salt Lake City helps 538 Veterans through the HUD/VASH program and another 128 Veterans in the Grant & Per Diem Program. If you know of a homeless Veteran or just want to learn more about VA Salt Lake City Health Care System’s Homeless Veterans Outreach Program, visit their website at or call 801-582-1565 Ext. 2746.


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