An anti-camping ordinance in Provo has pushed the unsheltered out of view. Where have they gone?

Advocates say the ban hasn’t solved homelessness and has instead has forced people further into the fringes in Utah County and made it harder for them to access services.

Editor’s note • Through a grant from the Local Media Association, The Salt Lake Tribune is reporting on homelessness in Utah communities outside of the Salt Lake Valley.

Provo • One strategy Provo’s homeless use to avoid a ticket for camping? Look like they’re not, by sleeping upright on a bench or forgoing a tent and sleeping bag and stretching out on the ground.

Or they can keep moving. Like the man who had been jolted awake and moved by police every few hours before Brent Crane, executive director of the Food and Care Coalition, served him.

“He literally fell asleep in his bowl of soup; he face planted in his soup because he was so tired,” Crane said.

Or they can stay out of the city. Outreach teams are increasingly seeing people experiencing homelessness in communities in southern Utah County, like Spanish Fork, Payson, Lehi and American Fork — something that “just wasn’t heard of five years ago, 10 years ago,” Crane said.

The unsheltered began making these shifts in 2017, when Provo barred them from camping in public spaces, even though the county does not have an overnight homeless shelter.

Since then, the city’s police department has handed out more than 140 camping citations. And many service providers say the ordinance has pushed homelessness out of sight and, for some, out of mind.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A roadside camp in Provo on Monday, May 17, 2021.

The Provo City Council hasn’t discussed homelessness much since the camping ban passed, said Councilman Dave Sewell. The business complaints that precipitated it have since died down, and “those problems aren’t occurring in areas where they’re really noticeable right now,” he said.

But by forcing the unsheltered into the fringes of the county, advocates say, the ban and the threat of police crackdown have made it harder for them to access services.

Examining enforcement

The ordinance bans sleeping on sidewalks, parking strips, in alleys, or in public right of ways, whether or not there are other places to go, and with each violation carrying court requirements and the possibility of fines or time in jail.

But it also says that if no other overnight shelter is available, people experiencing homelessness can camp in public places like parks and other open space.

A city police spokesperson said the department has no way of knowing whether officers are, in fact, checking with providers before issuing a citation. So it’s possible that enforcement by Provo officers could violate that component of the ordinance, in some cases.

While there is no overnight shelter in Utah County, housing agencies often have hotel or motel vouchers available.

Most of the time, Provo police enforce the camping ban in response to complaints from passersby or business owners and give people a chance to leave before issuing a citation, said spokeswoman Sgt. Nisha King. However, the department has about 150 officers, she added, and they each handle these situations differently.

“Sometimes, the citations are issued after multiple warnings are given,” she said. “But ultimately it is up to the discretion of the officers.”

Data provided by the department appears to back this up, by showing that officers since 2018 have reported more than 450 camping-related interactions — far more than the total number of tickets they’ve written during that time. They’d handled at least 60 situations involving camping as of late May, according to the data.

[Read more: Photo essay — What homelessness looks like in Utah County’s ‘Happy Valley’]

The department, King said, tries to be sensitive to the city’s homeless population, backing off enforcement over the last year in recognition of the hardships inflicted by COVID-19. And officers always make an effort to connect campers with services rather than taking a hardline approach, although she said that’s not possible with everyone.

“They don’t want help,” she said of some individuals on the streets. “They don’t want to go somewhere that they can’t do what they want.”

Garyl Smith received a camping ticket, which was ultimately dismissed, last spring. The 44-year-old said he’s frustrated by the camping ban.

”They should set up a thing for homeless people where they can have a tent that they’re given either by the [Food & Care] Coalition or some other company where they can actually go there and camp,” he said in a recent interview with The Salt Lake Tribune.

People experiencing homelessness who haven’t received tickets have still been impacted by the ban. Kevin Roy Evans, 61, for example, sleeps even on the coldest of nights with a single blanket for cover rather than a tent, in order to avoid drawing attention.

“I prefer if I got a warm sleeping bag, you know, I just lay it in the dirt,” he said.

And Edgar Gago, 66, recently found refuge for the night on a bench on University Avenue. He said he was only able to sleep three hours but that the police didn’t bother him because he “didn’t break the rules.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Edgar Gago in Provo on Sunday, May 16, 2021.

‘It kind of criminalized it’

Chad Pritchard, an owner of Fat Daddy’s Pizzeria in Provo, said he believes the ban has made a huge difference in warding off a criminal element that used to prey on the city’s homeless community.

Before the ordinance, drug dealers and others who were passing through Provo were able to settle in various public spots, sometimes threatening the safety of unsheltered individuals, he said.

“They have the right to feel safe,” Pritchard said. “And they don’t feel safe when there’s people down there selling drugs, or they’re flashing guns, or they’re stabbing them.”

He resists the idea that the ban was uncaring — and instead views it as a compassionate move meant to protect Provo’s homeless community.

The City Council approved its ordinance in 2017 in response to complaints about campers and other unsheltered individuals congregating around businesses and community spaces. (It has an exception that allows camping on public property before special events, such as holiday parades.)

In a hearing on the proposal, the manager of a Smith’s Food and Drug in Provo complained that the homeless individuals who were gathering around his store would “bug the customers as they come in” and reappear each day even though he kept asking them to stay away.

He blamed them for harassing shoppers for money, leaving scratches on his new car and breaking more than a dozen lawn sprinklers on the property.

But there was little that Provo law enforcement could do about the situation — or for other businesses that were upset about encampments near their addresses, a city police officer told the council.

An anti-camping ordinance, Officer Tyler Nisonger suggested, would give them power to force the campers out. He argued the new enforcement mechanism could benefit homeless individuals, too.

“A lot of time, having criminal repercussions actually helps these people get into services where they’ve been resistant in the past, where they don’t want treatment for drug abuse, they don’t want treatment for mental illness,” he said.

Most service providers and advocates contest this belief and note that having a criminal record makes it that much harder to find a job or qualify for housing, a point raised by several people during the 2017 city hearing.

If Provo really wanted to address homelessness, ordinance opponents said, officials should invest in more housing and services instead of criminalizing sleeping in public spaces.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Camping equipment in front of a fast food outlet in Provo on Monday, May 10, 2021.

Crane also spoke in opposition to the camping ban at the time, noting that the city already had panhandling, trespassing and unlawful loitering policies on the books.

“To me, it kind of criminalized it a little more than it should have been,” he said in a recent interview.

Pritchard said he and other business owners in downtown Provo now know most homeless individuals in the city by name. The pizzeria owner said he lets some people shower in one of the business’s bathrooms and recently helped one man into a treatment program.

“The camping ban wasn’t designed to say we don’t want to help you, we want you to disappear,” he said. “This camping ban was designed to stop problems that were happening in the community.”

‘Homeless in a different town’

Even before the camping ordinance, not all homelessness in Utah County was visible on the streets, advocates note. Many times, it can look like couch-surfing or staying overnight in a 24-hour laundromat. Some people double up with other families in apartments or sleep in their cars, service providers say.

The out-of-view homelessness in these areas stands in contrast with the situation in Salt Lake County, where the state’s largest emergency shelter system is located and where encampments dot public spaces.

“If you know who they are and you kind of know where they go, you see them all over” in Utah County, said Monte Memmott, criminal justice program manager for Wasatch Behavioral Health.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Monte Memmott, criminal justice program manager at Wasatch Behavioral Health, near a spot where people experiencing homelessness have been known to sleep in Provo on Thursday, May 6, 2021.

“But it’s different from maybe Salt Lake,” he said, “where they’re not necessarily in a makeshift tent, you know, on a busy street and places like that.”

Forcing people into the shadows certainly makes homelessness less visible, said Brianna Cluck, who testified against the camping ordinance in 2017. And maybe that’s the goal for some people, she said in a recent interview.

“People don’t like being reminded that homeless people exist,” Cluck said. “But the problem is that pushing people out through a public camping ban isn’t actually going to make them less homeless. It’s just going to make them homeless in a different town.”

Wasatch Behavioral Health is increasingly sending its homeless outreach team to cities in southern Utah County, Memmott said.

And some of those who haven’t been pushed to other cities have headed into the canyons nearby, setting up tents in wooded spaces tucked away from view — although that, too, can be unlawful since Utah County banned camping on county property in 2018.

Crane said he understands why the city passed the camping ordinance, but added that it has had an undeniable impact on the homeless community, in part by pushing people “out of Provo where your support services are.”

And it’s added a “lot of inconvenience” for those who now camp in the canyons, he said.

Service providers note that unsheltered individuals are still here — and they say bringing greater public awareness to the issue in Utah County is a critical step in addressing it.

“I think we still believe that we live in Happy Valley Utah County and that homelessness doesn’t exist. Well, it does,” said Kena Mathews, Orem’s community services manager. “I think that’s something that is a challenge because it’s hard to address issues when people don’t believe that we have them.”