homepage logo

Group to provide Utah County homeless population a warm place to sleep this winter

By Nichole Whiteley - | Oct 19, 2023

Laura Giles, Special to the Daily Herald

This undated photo shows a homeless campsite found in Provo Canyon.

Heather Hogue knows all too well the danger posed to those who are homeless during Utah winters.

Hogue, the project coordinator for Mountainland Continuum of Care, a group of organizations around Utah, Wasatch and Summit counties bound by the common cause of ending homelessness, said that five people she had known through her official duties died last year from exposure on cold nights.

“Five people whose names I knew died, and that’s unacceptable. It’s unacceptable. We’re not going to let that happen again,” she said. Expected to begin Dec. 1, homeless service agencies within the Mountainland Continuum of Care will be providing warming centers in Utah County each night until March for all who are homeless or unsheltered. Next year, and every year following, the warming centers will be open from Oct. 1 through March 31.

Th organization’s winter response plan is named Brenda’s Warming Center Program, after Brenda Ehl, a woman who worked to combat homelessness for 30 years in Utah County and passed away last year. Hogue said, “She’s a dear friend of mine, and she always talked about how we needed to be doing more. And if she were alive, she would be the first one to come and help make this work. So, we felt like it was a good way to honor her lifetime of service.”

This project was created after legislation was passed this year, House Bill 499. The legislation allowed communities across Utah to initiate code blue alerts beginning this year and mandated a winter response plan for Salt Lake, Davis and Utah counties to be in place by winter of 2024.

The legislation explains a code blue alert is required by the Department of Health and Human Services to be issued when weather conditions pose a danger to those who are homeless. Hogue explained the code blue legislation, in place this year for all of Utah, allows for communities to open warming centers when the temperature reaches 15 degrees, which is when an alert would be issued.

Hogue said Utah County decided to combine code blue alerts and the winter response plan to create Brenda’s Warming Center Program and implement it this year. Starting early, she said, is helping Utah County be better prepared to fully put in place the officially mandated winter response plan starting in October 2024.

Warming centers

A warming center is a simple shelter that provides warmth during the cold winter months. It is low barrier, meaning as long as people are not a danger to others, they will be allowed to stay the night. According to Hogue, many of the people who will be allowed into these warming centers would likely not be able to access an emergency shelter. In addition, it provides bare-minimum crisis intervention, meaning for access to food, long-term shelter and other needs, people will be referred to other resources in the community.

“The whole purpose of the warming station is so people do not die,” Hogue said.

Nonprofit agencies within the Mountainland Continuum of Care network are working with the Utah Office of Homeless Services as well as local churches that have offered their buildings as a warming center. The churches will operate as warming centers on a rotating basis, each one open one or two nights a week, ensuring there is always at least one warming center available.

Those who are unsheltered and homeless will be notified through fliers listing the locations of the warming centers according to each day of the week. The churches donating their buildings are Provo Seventh-day Adventist Community Service Center, Provo Community Congregational United Church of Christ, The Genesis Project and St. Mary’s Episcopal Church. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is donating commodities such as sleeping mats, blankets, cleaning supplies, water and other needed supplies. They are not offering any of their buildings to be used as a warming center because of “insurance issues” and “liability issues,” Hogue explained.

Each warming station will have bed mats or cots and blankets for each person in need. There will also be water and light snacks, but they will not be providing full meals as that is handled through other resources. However, Hogue said those in the community who want to donate premade meals are welcome to do so. She said they are also trying to supply some of the warming centers with games for people to play.

Some of the centers will also have showers available and basic hygiene items such as soap, toothbrushes and toothpaste. However, Hogue explained the Food and Care Coalition provides those basic necessities and more for homeless people, so they do not want to replicate another resource.

Families with minor children will be placed in a hotel or motel for the night. In addition, people fleeing domestic violence who cannot get a bed at the domestic violence shelter will be provided a place to sleep at a hotel or motel so they will not be in a congregate setting. A hotel will also be provided through Wasatch Behavioral Health for those who are significantly mentally ill.

This project is possible through the teamwork of several different organizations and groups. Funding came primarily through the state government. The nonprofit’s job is to staff the warming centers with employees and volunteers, administrate the project, and develop policies and procedures to make the project function.

As a way to thank the interfaith community for opening their doors to provide warmth for the homeless, Hogue said the partnering nonprofits will be paying for the churches’ additional costs in utilities, as well as the commodities, an insurance policy for each location and anything used for the warming centers that needs to be fixed or resupplied.

“We don’t want any of these congregations to spend one extra penny to do this service for our community,” she said.

Volunteers wanted

This project is only possible through volunteers from the community, Hogue explained. Each night, one warming center will be open and will need 10-12 volunteers who will take different shifts. The warming centers will be open from 9 p.m. to 8 a.m. each night. The centers will open on Dec. 1 this winter unless enough volunteers sign up sooner.

Everything is ready except for volunteers, Hogue explained, so they can open as soon as people sign up. People ages 18 and older can volunteer at https://mountainlandcoc.org/get-involved.html.

Next year when the mandate is officially in place, the warming centers will be required to be open from October through March.

Hogue said she hopes for volunteers who will come on a regular basis and start to learn people’s names. When she started working in homelessness, she said a homeless person said to her, “I never hear my name. … Nobody knows my name.”

When she heard this, she said it shocked her to her core because she had never thought about it.

“What if you went through your entire day or weeks without hearing your name? Nobody knows who you are. I mean, how dehumanizing would that feel?” Hogue said. “This is something that we want; we want to know people by their name.”

They will be collecting data to help them continue to do these projects, but Hogue said it is critical to this project that personal information is collected after the people have been given essential needs such as water, a shower and found their place to sleep for the night.

Functioning the warming centers in this order treats homeless people with dignity instead of dehumanizing them by requiring personal information in exchange for not freezing to death, Hogue explained. “Meeting those immediate needs is so important because they’re humans, you know,” she said. “There’s not a difference between them and me and you.”

There will also be outreach workers at the warming centers who can help people connect with resources they need such as housing, food, medical assistance and other services. They are expecting between 50 and 75 people coming to the warming centers each night, and Hogue said they will ensure there is space for each person who needs a warm place to sleep.

The warming centers are intended for Utah County residents, but Hogue explained people will not be turned away.

Transportation to the warming centers will be provided through monthly bus passes for homeless people who live in Utah County. Those who reside outside of Utah County but find shelter at one of these warming centers for the night will be provided with a bus ticket to go back to where they regularly live in the morning.

But regardless of where they are from, they will be given a warm place to sleep, Hogue assured.


Join thousands already receiving our daily newsletter.

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)