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.3