This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.
Starting in December, unsheltered residents of Utah County will – for the first time ever – have an organized and simple way to get out of the cold. Each night a network of churches will open its doors on a rotating basis, creating the first low-barrier warming center system in the county, population 684,986.
“This is going to give us an opportunity to really provide the lowest of low barriers for people that are seeking respite,” explained Heather Hogue, the Mountainland Continuum of Care Project Coordinator.
The Provo Adventist Community Center, the Genesis Project Church and the Provo Community Church will all pitch in to provide a warm place to sleep seven days a week. Hogue said they are still looking for one more congregation to provide a space for two nights a week.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will not open its properties, but is providing funds for needed supplies like cots, toiletries, and cleaning products.
Counties across the Wasatch Front are putting together programs to keep people from freezing on the streets this winter. In Cache Valley, the William A. Burnard Warming Center in Logan is preparing to serve residents for its second year, Utah Public Radio reported.
Beginning in 2024, counties with a population of at least 175,000 will all be required to create winter response plans for unsheltered residents. That’s the result of HB499 — legislation passed last year placing new requirements on Weber, Davis, Utah and Washington counties, The Tribune previously reported.
Bill sponsors crafted the legislation in response to increasing need across the state for homeless services.
“Every community is a source of homelessness,” said Wayne Niederhauser, state homeless coordinator. “Unfortunately, there’s only been a few cities that have created shelters and systems to deal with that. If we can deal with that in every city, work on prevention, the system would work much better. There’d be a lot less trauma, a lot less stress, a lot less crisis response.”
For chaplain Linda Walton the decision to host unsheltered residents in the Adventist Community Center on Thursday nights this winter is a simple one.
“You can argue about religion, or politics or whatever,” Walton said, “but why would you argue about taking care of people?”
What will Utah County’s program look like?
The warming centers will be open from 9 p.m. to 8 a.m seven days a week. There will be cots, blankets, pillows and some snacks. The hope is to have the program up and running by Dec. 1.
“If they’re not a danger to themselves or other people, then they’re welcome in,” Hogue said. If people are a danger, then the centers can call the Wasatch Behavioral Health’s receiving center.
The Mountainland Continuum of Care, a regional homelessness response group that manages federal funds and coordinates with nonprofits and local governments, will cover the insurance policies required for each location. They will also make sure there are funds for toilet paper, paper towels, shampoo and utilities for the buildings. Hogue expects that 50 to 75 people will come to the centers each night. “But we’re prepared to scale up as necessary,” she said.
They will partner with the Food and Care Coalition in Provo, which provides hot meals three times a day, seven days a week and offers laundry and showers. People staying at the warming shelters will also be given free bus passes to head to the Food and Care Coalition in the morning or to work or school.
“We’re expecting that part of our exit strategies in the morning are going to be to get people to the Food and Care Coalition for breakfast,” Hogue said.
Five days a week substance use and mental health outreach groups will also help connect people with additional services, Hogue said.
“It’s primarily intended as a crisis response. We don’t want people freezing to death on our streets.”
What has the county done in previous years?
The nightly warming shelter rotation will be sort of a test run for next year, when Utah County will be legally mandated to have a complete system in place. On extremely cold nights in past years a church might open its doors on an ad hoc basis, Hogue said.
“But we’ve never done a concerted effort across several different congregations or locations like this,” she said.
The Mountainland Continuum of Care has also handed out motel/hotel vouchers, Hogue said. They’ll continue handing out vouchers this winter as well, but there’s a capacity issue with relying solely on hotels.
Some hotels require ID to check in or struggle to share the receipts and documentation that Hogue needs to provide to the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department, the source of the voucher funding.
The warming centers will alleviate some of the pressure on securing enough hotel rooms across the county.
“I hope that this sends a message statewide, that we’re being proactive about the people that are vulnerable in our community,” Hogue said. “We’re not waiting until we’re legally mandated. We’re going to do it now.”