Editor’s note • Through a grant from the Local Media Association, The Salt Lake Tribune is reporting on homelessness in Utah communities outside the Salt Lake Valley.
Provo • It was getting cold outside, and Pastor Justin Banks didn’t know what to do.
There’s no homeless shelter in the Provo area, and city zoning rules don’t allow for one. So people were asking Banks whether he could pay for a night in a motel or hotel to get them out of the frigid weather.
The small, nondenominational Genesis Project couldn’t afford that. But as Banks considered other resources at his disposal, he landed on its auditorium. Why not, he reasoned, “play Netflix all night, and if anybody asks questions, we’ll just say we’re having a movie night? So we started to do that.”
In the five years since, Banks has opened the church to anywhere from 20 to 40 people experiencing homelessness on the coldest of winter nights, when temperatures drop below 20 degrees and people are at higher risk of dying on the streets.
“People don’t want to have shelters because they’re afraid that more homeless people are going to show up for the shelters,” Banks said, “and the truth is, there’s already enough homeless people there to fill them anyway.”
With the Provo City Housing Authority now considering whether to purchase a motel that could be used as “more of a traditional shelter situation,” as its executive director said recently, a longtime debate over how to best serve the homeless in the state’s second most populated county could soon come to the foreground.
Some advocates and service providers want a full-time emergency shelter in the county, viewing the lack of beds as a systemwide failure to help the community’s most vulnerable.
Linda P. Walton, community services director for the Provo Seventh-day Adventist Church, said just a single overnight shelter in Utah County won’t satisfy the demand.
“We need to come up with ... maybe a dozen different areas that are going to need care,” she said. “Whether it’s overnight or whether it’s long term.”
Others insist that Utah County’s emphasis on getting people into permanent housing, with support from caseworkers, is a more effective approach, arguing that their limited dollars shouldn’t be focused on temporarily housing people.
“My overall sentiment is, let’s build adequate housing options,” said Brent Crane, executive director of the Food and Care Coalition, which offers transitional housing to people experiencing homelessness.
“Would it be easier if there were a shelter? It probably would,” he said. “But I also think it opens a can of worms and other challenges that we just don’t understand.”
Whether they believe there’s a need for an emergency overnight shelter in Utah County or not, many people familiar with the conversation agree: There simply isn’t the political will necessary to build one.
“Like it or not, true or not, there is a mindset of, ‘if we build it, they will come,’” said Heather Hogue, project manager and coordinator with the Mountainland Continuum of Care.
Is there a need for an emergency shelter?
Travis Hogland, 44, arrived in Provo a few weeks ago, after the Bronco he was living in was towed from the Walmart in Heber. He’s spent several recent nights on the lawn near the Genesis Project.
He would “absolutely” stay in an emergency overnight shelter if there was one in Utah County, he said. And he thinks others would, too, given the number of people he sees experiencing homelessness in the area and currently left with few options.
“I see so many of them walking around at night,” he said. “And they’re not welcome anywhere.”
Robert Vernon, executive director of the Provo City Housing Authority, mentioned in a recent meeting of the Utah Commission on Housing Affordability the idea of creating some kind of overnight shelter space in Provo. But he’s wary of discussing the details.
“We know we’re going to get a little pushback,” he said in an interview, “so we’re just trying to keep it a little quieter until we get to the point where we’re ready to go.”
Generally, the Housing Authority is considering having trailers on site with 24-hour services, he said, but people likely wouldn’t have access to meals there. The agency hopes to get state funding to run the facility, for which he said there’s “definitely” a need.
“We see it all the time where, gee, it would be nice if we had a place to put this person for four or five months, they’re coming out of a domestic violence situation, the refuge is full and where are we going to put them? What are we going to do?” he said. “You know, we need some options for people.”
On the night in 2020 when communities across the country took a census of their unsheltered residents, volunteers and service providers found 148 people experiencing homelessness in Utah County, which has a population of 636,000.
The county recorded it had 58 emergency beds available — which reflected a mix of motel and hotel vouchers, space in a domestic violence shelter, and a dozen spots for youths. That night, 24 of those emergency beds were claimed, including 14 of the 25 beds for victims of domestic violence.
Some people may view that 41% occupancy rate as proof that there isn’t demand for an overnight shelter in Utah County. But that number of available beds is “very misleading,” Hogue said.
First, the total is not constant, and it was on the high side of how many emergency beds are usually open. For example, the number of vouchers funded on any given night varies.
Second, homeless people vanish from Utah County statistics when service providers refer them to other communities for shelter — which they say they are forced to do at times. Such shifting also creates “a great deal of undue stress and hardship for homeless individuals and families,” the Mountainland Continuum of Care said in a 2020 request for funding from the State Homeless Coordinating Committee.
Local government leaders say a shelter plan has ‘just not come up’
Without a shelter, providers have resorted to a variety of workarounds.
Years ago, in an attempt to cope with the lack of overnight options, a historic hotel in Provo became a de facto shelter because an overnight stay there cost as little as $18, said Kena Mathews, who worked with the Food and Care Coalition at the time.
The city ultimately condemned Hotel Roberts, which was abruptly razed in 2004 without warning to service providers.
Today, hotel or motel vouchers provide overnight accommodations for some people in crisis, but they can’t help everyone, said Karen McCandless, executive director of Community Action Services and Food Bank. Her nonprofit’s emergency program — largely funded by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — usually covers people for only three to seven nights at a hotel or motel, she said.
That’s often not enough time for people to get into more permanent living situations.
“A lot of the people that are in that gap,” Hogue said, “are in a vehicle or they’re on the street or they’re staying with friends.”
Conservative values in Utah County, a Latter-day Saint stronghold, play a role in the way people there view homelessness and the path out of it, said Mathews, who’s now the community services manager for Orem. Many seem to believe that individuals should “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps” as they struggle with poverty and lack of housing, she said.
“That’s what we have to change,” she said, “that mindset.”
Utah County Commissioner Bill Lee said he’s mystified by the perception that any overnight shelter proposal would fall prey to community or political opposition. “I believe the people in Utah County are very, very generous and doing what they can,” Lee said. “And I don’t know where that pushback would come.”
However, no serious plan for a permanent emergency shelter has come up for commission discussion during Lee’s time on the board, as far as he can recall.
Similarly, Provo City Council member Dave Sewell said he’s unaware of any efforts to open a local overnight emergency shelter during the seven years he’s served in his elected role. “It’s just not come up as something we’ve discussed,” he said.
If there was a serious conversation about bringing an overnight emergency shelter to Utah County, Orem Mayor Richard Brunst indicated that he would get behind it — if it was done in the right way.
“It would have to be in a regulated area that was patrolled by the police and would not be disruptive to the community,” he said. “But, yes, I would support that.”
Banks, at the Genesis Project, said his church’s movie nights have not drawn complaints from Provo officials or police. At times, officers even drop unsheltered people off at the building, he said. But he’s been careful to keep the overnight events limited to icy periods when there is the greatest need.
“I’ve never had any pushback at all,” he said. “I’ve also tried to not push that as well. You know, not to force it to a place where there would be some pushback.”
Is transitional housing a better answer?
Though Provo is a hub for many of Utah County’s social services, city officials have historically been resistant to emergency overnight options. Zoning rules in Provo and around the county are so strict that the Food and Care Coalition ultimately decided not to even broach establishing an emergency shelter, after briefly considering it in the early 2000s.
“We were a little frustrated,” Crane said, “because at the time [in] the political environment — which honestly has not changed much — there was not really a high tolerance nor was there very favorable zoning for an emergency shelter in Utah County.”
Crane instead decided to focus the coalition’s resources on transitional housing, which he now believes is more effective than emergency shelter in helping people exit homelessness.
The number of chronically homeless people in Utah County has “never been over 200 people,” he notes.
And once the agency’s new permanent supportive housing units come on line sometime next year, he said, his agency “will essentially be operating about 112 units ourselves.”
Hogue agreed that the county’s service providers are focusing on a housing first approach as a way to end chronic homelessness. That doesn’t mean there’s no need for an overnight shelter, though, she continued.
“Having an emergency shelter is a really important part of a service delivery system,” Hogue said. “Do we have people that we could put into emergency shelter if we had one? Yes.”
Danny Herring, a Provo native who’s living on the streets, said in an interview that he would go to a shelter, at least “for a while,” rather than constantly search for places to sleep where he won’t be found by police.
“You can’t sleep out at night,” he noted. “There’s all different kinds of restrictions they’ve got. You can’t panhandle. You can’t hardly do anything. So all the homeless people around here in Provo and stuff, they have a really hard time getting by.”