Motel vouchers, churches and more ways unsheltered people try to survive in Utah County
Tara Lynn Campbell weaved her way through a messy motel room at Executive Inn and Suites near downtown Provo. She was frantically picking pieces of her life and stuffing them into a black, floral backpack.
There were about two hours until she had to check out of the room or find a way to pay for another night.
Otherwise, she would end up on the cold December streets.
Campbell’s curly black hair was tucked into a camouflage hat. Her hot pink glasses were perched on her nose as she looked up contacts to call and text. She was asking everyone she knows for some money but wasn’t having much luck.
“I got till three o’ clock to come up with $70 for my rent,” she said into her phone. “So I really need — like, gather whatever you can [panhandle], cause that's better. Cause I'm trying to do whatever I can.”
For the last few weeks Campbell has been staying in the room thanks to a motel voucher system. It’s operated by area nonprofits like Community Action Services and Food Bank, Wasatch Behavioral Health and United Way of Utah County’s Mountainland Continuum of Care Program. It aids people who are experiencing homelessness or who need emergency shelter.
These organizations fill a gap in the valley, because Utah County — the state’s second largest county — has no overnight shelter.
But the voucher system only gets people into a motel room for a limited number of nights. That’s sometimes due to a motel’s availability. It can also be a strategy the nonprofits use to make sure clients check back in with case managers.
“[Homelessness is] just not looked at here very much,” Campbell said. “They kind of turned a blind eye to it. And, you know, the cops chase after camps.”
Campbell is originally from Spanish Fork, and she said she has been chronically homeless since 2015 when she left her first husband. Since then, she’s struggled on and off with addiction and her mental health. During the week, she attends group therapy at Wasatch Behavioral Health to help with her PTSD.
“I'm not ready to go back to the streets,” she said, out of breath. Her backpack weighs heavy on her small frame. “It's too cold and I'm not ready. So I'm really hoping to be able to get this money together.”
As of October last year, around 370 people were experiencing homelessness in Utah County. Most in Provo end up camping behind dumpsters or sleeping along the Provo River trail or the train tracks. If they’re lucky, they get a motel voucher for the night like Campbell.
Brent Crane is the executive director of the Food & Care Coalition. It’s a nonprofit that offers resources like food and medical services to people who are low-income or unsheltered. He said the voucher system is flawed.
“If I'm a homeless person and I go in, I get a voucher to a motel. It's temporary. It's a night. It's three, it's maybe seven. Two weeks, max,” Crane said. “What homeless person out on the street in two weeks time can change their fortunes?”
Crane said the program is helpful, but he thinks about this issue in terms of sustainable solutions, like the coalition’s transitional housing program. There’s an interview process to get into that program, as much as a 10-day wait and a limited number of spots available.
He said he knows that’s not for everyone, and he knows a lot of people could benefit from having an overnight shelter in Utah County.
“My personal feeling is, would I get in the way of an emergency shelter coming here in Utah County? No,” he said. “Because I see that there would be a need for that. But I also would temper my expectations, of would that really solve the problem?”
He said two big reasons the county doesn't have an overnight shelter are zoning and funding issues. Crane said there’s also a concern that if a shelter is built, people from other cities would come to it.
“We had a preliminary meeting as a continuum of care to have a discussion about, ‘Hey, what are our service gaps in the community and what can we do?’ [As] soon as the idea of an emergency shelter was put out on the table, it was discouraged by city officials.”
Neither Provo city or Utah County officials responded to KUER’s request for comment. The city does give some funding to organizations that provide services to the unsheltered.
Meanwhile, other community partners have stepped in to help fill the gap on cold nights — like the Genesis Project.
It’s a nondenominational church located in the southern part of Provo near the Towne Centre mall. On nights when temperatures dip below 20 degrees, Pastor Justin Banks hosts a movie night.
“When winter came and it got really cold, [people] would try to sleep around our building. Our landlord didn't like that,” Banks said. “And one day I just thought, ‘you know, why don't we just open the church up?’”
Two times a week, he does just that. Staff volunteers serve snacks and play movies all night, as people grab blankets and spread out on the floor and chairs to sleep.
It’s a space that is filled with familiar faces. Tara Lynn Campbell said she used to be one of the volunteers. She still comes around on some Sundays for the breakfasts, where staff member John Wright’s biscuits and gravy are the champion staple.
“It really has become more of a community type thing,” Banks said. “Working with other services to get that [information] out there so that when we do have [movie nights], we have people sending people in our direction.”
But Banks is clear about not wanting to operate as a shelter. He said that would take more resources than they have. He sees the church’s role as helping out where they can.
Tara Lynn Campbell did find enough money for another couple of nights at the motel, but she landed right back where she started.