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With no homeless shelter, Provo relies on hotel vouchers and policing when it’s cold

A point-in-time count volunteer collects data from a person found sleeping inside a van in a Springville gas station parking lot, Jan. 28, 2023.
Curtis Booker
A point-in-time count volunteer collects data from a person found sleeping inside a van in a Springville gas station parking lot, Jan. 28, 2023.

With recent temperatures in Northern and Central Utah dipping below 20 degrees at night, there's a dire need for access to emergency shelter.

Utah County has seen a steady increase in homelessness over the past three years. According to the Department of Workforce Services, the total number of individuals experiencing homelessness rose from 148 in 2020 to 206 in 2022. But there is no dedicated overnight homeless shelter in all of Utah County.

And advocates say three people have died from exposure recently.

The Mountainland Continuum of Care conducted this year’s point-in-time count in Utah, Summit and Wasatch counties during the early morning hours between Jan. 26 and 28. The annual count provides a snapshot of how many people are homeless in the county to help provide resources or get federal housing funds to get people off the streets.

"The more numbers we have, the more resources we have to help families and individuals in our community," said Kena Mathews, community services manager for the City of Orem.

Mathews and a team of volunteers scoured portions of Orem, South Provo, Springville and Spanish Fork to identify people sleeping in parking lots, on the streets or in encampments. Something unique for 2023 Mathews noted, was the number of vehicles spotted with people asleep in them.

"I've done point-in-time for several years, and this is the first year that I've found so many people in cars and not just outside, which is good and bad," she said.

But not everyone has an automobile to sleep in.

Provo recently opened their emergency hotel shelter voucher program for the winter. The effort is led by Community Action Services and Food Bank to provide a warm alternative to sleeping on the streets thanks to $40,000 in state funding.

Provo police officers assist in the efforts during overnight hours. If they come in contact with someone who is unsheltered and needs to get out of the cold, they work to connect them with appropriate resources to get a voucher.

The voucher is good for one night. A person would need to reapply for a voucher for an additional stay.

"Our role is primarily when Community Action is closed. So it's out of office hours for them, which is typically between midnight and 6 a.m. So if any individuals are encountered by the police or if they on the streets and feel like it's getting too cold and they want to reach out, they can contact our offices," said Janna-Lee Holland, public information officer for the Provo Police.

In a press release, Provo Police Chief Troy Beebe explained, "Not only does the emergency shelter program help during cold weather, but it also provides a safe alternative to illegal homeless encampments."

In May of 2017, Provo adopted an anti-camping ordinance that prohibits sleeping on publicly owned, transit-related properties like streets, sidewalks, parking strips and driveways connected to public property. It also prohibits camping on other public property, such as parks, without prior authorization when there is no overnight shelter space available.

Officers will continue to enforce the ordinance.

"And so by shelter, the way that is defined in that code — it means an option to stay in a warm place. And that is where the voucher program comes in to fill that gap," Holland said.

She said typically, officers will defer to "compassionate policing" as opposed to an immediate citation, arrest or confiscation of an individual's belongings.

"It's not about direct enforcement on the first contact. It's like, ‘hey, you sleep in a tent, these are your options. Where would you like to go? Can we get you a room? Can we do something different,’” said Holland.

At a city council meeting on Jan. 17, City Attorney Brian Jones said they’ve only acted on the ordinance 10 times over the last six months. During that same meeting, community members voiced their frustrations with the ordinance. They want the city to do more to provide access to long-term shelter, and to place a temporary ban on the anti-camping ordinance.

Holland said if an unsheltered individual is in a tent in a city park, bus stop or a storefront police will ask them to move their things and/or officers might offer some sort of resource, like an emergency shelter voucher.

If it's a private property where the owner has filed a complaint, they'll also be asked to move and could be cited for trespassing.

The officers might give a person a couple of hours or a few days to clean up and move on — if they don’t, that’s when they might issue a citation or make an arrest. However, she adds in the event an arrest is made, “it gets the person off the streets and at times has been the catalyst for change.”

Kena Mathews believes the homeless situation is a combination of the impacts of job loss during the pandemic, addiction and a lack of affordable housing.

"We have a large demand because we have two major universities here. And so our housing costs are high and demand is high and our supply is low. And so because of all that, it's really putting pressure to put people back on the street," she said.

Mathews said she'd eventually like something like a 30-day shelter activated in the county as a long-term solution to helping someone experiencing homelessness change their life.

"I think people think because we're in Happy Valley, Utah County, that we don't have a homeless problem here, but we do. I mean, within three days we have found — between Orem [and] Springville — 27 different people that are homeless, including a family with a 10-year-old boy. It's a problem and we need to deal with it."

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