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Utah County has no homeless shelter, so the community helps fill the gap

The Genesis Project in Provo, located at 875 S 170 E, offers a warm spot for those on the street with nowhere to live, Dec. 21, 2022.
Curtis Booker
The Genesis Project in Provo, located at 875 S 170 E, offers a warm spot for those on the street with nowhere to live, Dec. 21, 2022.

Winter in Utah brings a mix of snow, ice and frigid temperatures. Heading into the holiday weekend, the National Weather Service forecasted dangerously cold conditions for Northern Utah and Southwest Wyoming, with lows between 0 and 20 degrees.

That's why Justin Banks, lead pastor at the Genesis Project in Provo, said his church opened its doors for people living on the street, providing a place to warm up with entertainment, food and fellowship.

"We have no emergency shelters during the winter time or anything like that,” Banks said. “That's why we started the movie nights, because I just couldn't let people stay on the street."

The Genesis Project holds movie nights twice a week on the coldest nights from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. People are able to watch a movie, enjoy food and get a warm place to sleep.

The Genesis Project, a nondenominational church, has been in Provo for nearly nine years. Banks said on Friday, Dec. 16, they saw one of their biggest crowds yet for a movie night.

"We had 40 people come. The place was full, but it was good. It was a really good night," Banks said.

On average he said the movie night crowd usually numbers 20 to 35 people.

Genesis project works closely with other agencies like Food & Care Coalition, a nonprofit that provides food, medical services and resources to shelter those in need. As well as Community Action Services, which offers help to people struggling with hunger and rent.

Utah County doesn't have a drop-in homeless shelter due to occupancy laws.

Banks would like to see more churches open their doors during the winter months, "maybe something from November through February, or maybe just more churches open their door during the week, we could have a church every single day of the week be open in this area."

Others in the community are doing what they can to help as well, like the United Way of Utah County’s Mountainland Continuum of Care Program, which works to help connect people to housing resources or emergency shelters.

Heather Hogue, program coordinator of Mountainland said "we utilize the motel vouchers as sort of our winter overflow shelter. So when it's cold, when it's snowing, when people are in danger, when people are in need, this is something that we utilize."

While neither Provo nor Utah County operates a homeless shelter, Hogue said discussions are happening between local agencies and elected officials to figure out the logistics of developing one.

"Where we're struggling a little bit is matching the opportunity for acquisition of a property with the funding cycle and timing. So for example, we can get a property under contract that we want as a non-congregation shelter that is like isolated rooms, not like a warehouse and cots. But we have to match that up with funding and the availability and timing of funding that comes down," said Hogue.

While conversations may be happening, she said nothing is imminent yet, "what we're seeing is people reaching out in elected official capacity and positions to learn more and to talk about how we can really come to the table and have solutions.”

Ultimately, she'd like to see the entire county work toward a solution to combat homelessness.

"I'm not sure that there is a city in Utah County that isn’t looking at an increase of homelessness right now,” Hogue said. “So these conversations are extending beyond just Provo, which as it should be. We've all got to be at the table to talk about what needs to be done in our community."

KUER reached out to the City of Provo for comment, but did not receive a response by the time of publication.

Curtis Booker is KUER’s growth, wealth and poverty reporter in Central Utah.
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