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Utah County churches are lined up as needed warming shelters for the winter

Aerial view of Provo, the Y Mountain, Brigham Young University and the surrounding neighborhoods.
Brett Taylor
Getty Images/iStockphoto
Aerial view of Provo, the Y Mountain, Brigham Young University and the surrounding neighborhoods.

For the last seven years, a church in Provo called Genesis Project was the only place providing a warm place to sleep for Utah County’s homeless population. They open their doors twice a week whenever temperatures drop below 20 degrees.

Pastor Justin Banks said people show up for shelter and warmth, but the program isn’t technically a homeless shelter or a warming center. Until recently, that was against zoning laws.

Instead, they show films and call it a movie night. “As a church, I can have a church-sanctioned event,” Banks said.

But a new law means churches and community centers won’t need a workaround like this to be able to open their doors to people in need.

A bill passed by the Utah Legislature this year requires counties to provide shelter for anyone who needs it on nights that drop below 15 degrees Fahrenheit, also known as “code blue nights.” There are no homeless shelters in Utah County where, according to advocates, one person has already died from exposure to freezing cold weather earlier this year.

Heather Hogue is project manager of Mountainland Continuum of Care, which coordinates services for people experiencing homelessness in Utah County. She said now, on code blue nights, “any public building can be opened that will house people that are unsheltered.”

As a result, other organizations including the Provo Seventh-day Adventist Community Service Center, Provo Community Congregational United Church of Christ, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and St. Mary's Episcopal Church have stepped up to provide warm shelter for community members.

By the winter of 2024, the law requires larger counties like Utah County to have warm shelter available every night of the winter. Along with other Provo nonprofits, Mountainland Continuum of Care is working to make this available sooner, in January of 2024.

Hogue said it matters a lot that city, county and community services can plan ahead and work together now “so that we’ll know where people can go every single night of the week, all winter long.”

It’s a big step toward the changes Hogue wants to see in Utah County.

“Bottomline, I’m pretty transparent about my agenda,” she said, “and that is, as a community, we say no more death in our streets.”

Tilda is KUER’s growth, wealth and poverty reporter in the Central Utah bureau based out of Provo.
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