One More Tool to Fight Homelessness

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There is an old adage that if you want to build a house or a piece of furniture, you need more than one tool in your toolbox. The more tools that a builder has – along with the knowledge and skill to use them – the better the end product of his labors.

The increased visibility of homeless and transient people in our community has given rise to many observations and feelings by our residents. As part of our coordinated strategy to address these concerns, the Provo Police Department has recommended that the City Council adopt an ordinance that would prohibit camping on public property. The camping ordinance provides one more tool in our toolbox to address the root causes and the symptoms of homelessness.

The ordinance that will be considered on February 21 by the Council prohibits sleeping on publicly owned properties in Provo like streets, sidewalks, trails, parks and driveways. It also prohibits camping on public property without prior authorization when there is no overnight shelter space available. It specifically exempts activities like camping for the Freedom Festival Grand Parade and for picnicking or falling asleep in a park.

First and foremost, the ordinance is designed to protect the safety of people who are camping or sleeping in places where they might be injured or harmed. It also protects the safety of people who are walking or driving in areas and might be impeded by people sleeping in the area.

If the camping ordinance were the only tool our community has to address issues of transiency or homelessness, I could see how some might question whether a camping ordinance and enforcement of it is the right thing to do. But, when the camping ordinance is considered in the context of the other ways we address these problems, it can be a valuable tool for getting those who are transient or homeless off the streets and into programs that can help with the broader issues.

Attacking the issues of homelessness has to be a multifaceted approach because the needs of the transient and homeless populations are widely varied as well. In some cases, the chronically homeless may simply choose a lifestyle that keeps them away from government institutions and structures. In many cases, those who are homeless or transient struggle with substance abuse or mental health issues. Sometimes, people find themselves homeless or transient because of financial issues and they are truly “in between” homes and are solving problems that will get them back into traditional housing.

So, in Provo, we have solutions being utilized and developed on multiple fronts to address these issues. For those who refuse being involved with programs that can help, there is little that can be done except to minimize risk of harm to them and others. For those with mental health or substance issues, Wasatch Mental Health and other entities provide a range of services to assist. For those needing transitional housing, the Food and Care Coalition and Community Action Services can help with shelter options and with housing vouchers. Entities like NeighborWorks and the Provo Housing Authority operate programs to assist residents with incomes too low for traditional housing to find apartments for which the rent is based on income. In the last 2 years, more than 300 income assisted units in central Provo have been constructed or are currently under construction with a goal of helping those on the edges of homelessness find permanent housing solutions.

Other programs like the Circles Initiative are helping break the cycle of intergenerational poverty with significant success. Educational programs through the Provo School District, UVU and the Mountainland Applied Technology College are helping able residents to train for the jobs of today and tomorrow that can support families. Ongoing economic development efforts to create more good paying jobs downtown, at The Mix, at the Riverwoods and at Duncan Aviation will help reduce unemployment and provide more opportunities for family income that can sustain a household.

Finally, we appreciate the efforts of the faith-based community in preventing a serious homeless problem. There is a really good argument that our local churches and our social structures in neighborhoods are doing a great deal in the one-on-one efforts to keep people in their homes and support them through struggles that might otherwise result in increased homelessness in the community.

The bottom line is that there is so much good going on in our community to address the causes and the results of homelessness and transiency. We all play a role, and putting more tools in our toolbox is a good thing. The camping ordinance is one of those new tools that can help people get to the services they need and to bridge the divide from homelessness to housing.

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  1. There will always be reasonable arguments in favor of a camping ordinance, but in practice, it usually turns into an expensive way for law enforcement to harass the homeless. If you look at Salt Lake, camping ordinances fill our jails with transients and give the police an easy way to sweep unshowered people under the rug.

    If someone is sleeping out in the open, a rational society should see that as a dramatic cry for help. These people need assistance with housing and maybe mental health services. When we overlook their plight and criminalize homelessness, our jails and emergency rooms pay a dramatically higher cost, and we lose our moral authority as a community.

    1. Ron MDonald

      There is much truth espoused in this comment. Having worked with this element of our society via the Transient Services office, their needs are wide, deep and varied.

    2. Alex Pedersen

      1002 N Macarthur

    3. David Bailey

      Dave, I drive past Pioneer Park in Salt Lake City often. Homeless are very prominent all the time. I feel that if we lose control of our public spaces, homeless people will be the only ones enjoying them. We should be helpful to those who need help, but we also should feel safe in our downtown areas.

      When people won’t accept services due to life choices that are ultimately unlawful and self-destructive, it doesn’t mean we should abandon our parks because we don’t feel safe there any more to be compassionate.

  2. Sariah

    410 S 500 W

  3. I’d like more information about the ordinance prohibiting picnics. Does this mean we can’t bring sandwiches to parks?

  4. There is no doubt that homelessness is a complex problem. However, operating a service organization for 28 years that addresses homelessness in our community, I’m not convinced that this camping ordinance will accomplish anything more than creating even more stress on the population that already has no “home”. I know the intent is to protect property owners rights and address public safety issues – and these are reasonable and legitimate reasons to consider its passage. However, there will be some unintended (and some might say intended) consequences if passed and rigorously enforced.

    Our law enforcement community already works with multiple service providers in encouraging homeless to seek out and enter into community offered services. I have great respect for their efforts and I know they work hard to serve and protect. I know their intended outcome with the passage of this ordinance is to have homeless engage with service providers and reduce the overall visibility of the problem. The problem is, this is already being done and we are being overwhelmed. The need is housing. We have a stray dog or cat and we build a $7 million dollar animal shelter. We have homeless people, and we . . . are falling short of what our best efforts should be.

    The homeless have adequate food, clothing, medical, and dental services thanks to generous community support and collaborative efforts – BUT THEY DON’T HAVE ACCESS TO ADEQUATE AND AFFORDABLE HOUSING. As the primary homeless provider in Utah County, we and many of our service partners discuss often, if not daily, that we are in dire need of housing for this population. We have 38 private rooms in our facility that provides a supportive enriched environment for guests. Many who enter our program, are afforded time to address barriers to self sufficiency and reenter our society as productive citizens. The model works. The only problem – not enough beds relative to the need.

    Provo adding 300 income assisted units is a good start, but it is a far cry from addressing the nearly 10,000 unit shortage (for Utah County) identified through independent studies conducted in recent years. The scary part, it’s only getting worse and it is not just impacting our homeless. A proposed housing project that would have addressed the need for 1 bedroom units that could have alleviated the housing bottleneck was flat out turned down by Provo City. Many in our community are finding it financially daunting to stay abreast with rising housing costs. Having a newly married son, I experienced my own sticker shock when I offered my help in finding housing for them. I soon found out that a 1-2 bedroom apartment in the area would cost between $800-$900 per month, with most of the available units being anything but desirable.

    I agree, Provo shouldn’t have to shoulder the burden alone. Other communities need to participate by building affordable housing but many cities, including Provo, have made it difficult for developers to construct affordable housing – either through master plans which primarily promote home ownership over rentals, and/or zoning ordinances that make it difficult to develop such projects.

    I know you to be a good man. I know you to be compassionate and sensitive to our communities needs. I would love to see your outgoing legacy being one that was able to rally our Utah Valley Community in addressing this issue in a substantive way. I’m willing to do my part in helping you!

  5. Hyrum

    Obviously you have the ordinance because your other services aren’t working. What is the average cost to an apartment near Provo? A home? Answer those questions and you may find part of your problem. If you’ve ever traveled between work you’d understand how difficult it would be to raise your living standard from “camping”

  6. Margy Layton

    I do understand the desire to have a tool like this in a community’s toolbox, but for the past half dozen years I’ve had a front row seat observing what we’re up against and I’m deeply concerned about this move, especially if it ends up being heavily enforced. I know it is a crazy complicated issue, but I’m generally loathe to criminalize social problems. A few of my random thoughts:

    — Central to this issue is a fundamental lack of affordable housing in our area.

    — We’ve got some awesome organizations staffed with amazing people doing good work in our community, but the need is so much greater than they can meet. Every single day people seek their services and are turned away, either because they don’t qualify or because the organization has reached its limit (of funding, personnel, beds, etc.). Our city and county housing authorities, for example, have multiple year waiting lists.

    — Aside from the Center for Women & Children in Crisis (for victims of rape and/or DV), the only emergency shelter program we have in our county is the motel voucher program, which was originally designed to help people like motorists who break down while passing through and don’t have enough money to pay for both repairs and a place to stay for a night or two. For a number of reasons, It is wholly inadequate for the various situations people find themselves in today, but the political climate in our county has long since precluded serious consideration of other shelter options.

    — I recently conducted a survey of hundreds of inmates at the county jail about where they will go the day they get released, quantifying what I had been seeing anecdotally. More than 25% have no place to go, and another 25% have a temporary place to go for a few days or few weeks. More than 50% of the inmates are at risk of being homeless after they serve their time. In real numbers, this translates into an average of 10 people a day, as many as 3,500 people a year. Right now our network of community organizations is only equipped to serve a portion of them, and as private organizations, they have (and should have) the right to refuse service to people who don’t meet their requirements.

    — Both locally and globally we’re increasingly making it impossible for too many people to exist anywhere both safely and legally except in prisons, jails and refugee camps. (I’m using safely as a relative term here.) This will not lead us to a better community or world.

    — Whether the city passes this ordinance or not (but especially if they do), I hope they’ll study the examples of communities like Colorado Springs, CO, who have revolutionized their approach to police interactions with people who are homeless.

    1. Brent

      Amen!

  7. Josh Gubler

    Charles Montgomery (Happy City p244) talking about public parks:

    “…kid-friendly design is not necessarily friendly to everyone else. … There was the children’s playground. But off to one side, there was also an unadorned hut surrounded by a high wooden fence. This was the zone designed by and for a demographic that some people call drunken bums.

    “‘We asked everyone in the neighborhood to come to our planning meetings, but we realized that the alcoholics, the guys who just sit around all day and drink in the park, never showed up,’ planner Henrik Lyng told me as we wandered through the park. ‘So we just bought a case of beer, came down here, and found them.’

    “The drinkers told Lyng they wanted a place to hang out where they wouldn’t be bothered by or bother other park users. They wanted a place to meet. They also wanted a toilet. That’s what they got.

    “I met a few of the regulars in that compound: rough, red-eyed men accompanied by rather fierce dogs. The guys said that the fence ensured that their dogs didn’t scare the children in the playground. They picked up the litter and looked out for each other. The compound was their common living room. Norrebro Park works for everyone because it acknowledges through design that everyone has a right to be there.”

    Please don’t misunderstand; I am not insinuating that the homeless are drunks. I am suggesting that this ordinance alienates the homeless. It reinforces an “us vs them” mentality. It seems to favor the “wants” of the rich over the “needs” of the poor.

    For public property, that all feels backwards. Shouldn’t we be trying to find a design that fills everybody’s needs first, and then moves on to people’s wants. A design that brings us together as citizens regardless of our circumstances.

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