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Utah County warming centers will need more staffing next winter, advocates say

By Curtis Booker - | Apr 18, 2024

Michael Dwyer, Associated Press

The tents of a homeless camp line the sidewalk in an area commonly known as Mass and Cass on Oct. 23, 2021, in Boston.

Utah is often recognized as being a national leader in volunteer service. And having a base of individuals willing to give up a night’s sleep to staff Utah County’s warming centers played a role in helping those who were seeking an escape from frigid temperatures feel safe and welcomed.

In January, three Provo churches opened their doors as warming centers on Code Blue alert nights, a state-issued directive when the temperature drops below 15 degrees.

Kena Mathews, housing director at Community Action Services and Food Bank in Provo, said the warming centers ended up being open about 20 nights total, serving anywhere from 15 to 40 people each night.

“We feel like we were successful. You know, we kept people alive and warm,” Mathews said.

She credits local mayors and community leaders, Mountainland Continuum of Care and the many volunteers for making sure the centers ran smoothly, despite a delay in opening due to fire code requirements.

But the work is far from over.

Starting in October, Utah County will be mandated to have a full-fledged response to to accommodate homeless residents in the winter.

The Utah County Winter Response Task Force was created to carry out efforts of ensuring a plan is in place for the new requirement.

“Next year we have to be open seven nights a week, regardless of weather, from Oct. 15 through April 30,” Mathews said. “And so we’re in the process of putting that winter response plan on what that’s going to look like.”

One item already on the list for next winter is securing more churches willing to open their doors as warming centers.

“We’re looking at potential locations in Orem and Springville. That would be the goal, where it’s still close and in the hub, kind of where we’re seeing the biggest concentration of people experiencing homelessness in our community,” Continuum of Care project coordinator Heather Hogue explained.

While providing additional centers throughout Utah County for homeless people to get a warm night’s sleep in the winter is vital, Hogue said a majority of the local homeless population is in Provo because of the access to transportation.

“In the last few years, (Point-in-Time count data suggests) more than 90% to 95% of the people that we find who are unsheltered are in Provo, Orem and Springville,” Hogue said.

Results of 2024’s Point-in-Time count have not yet been released.

Along with more churches, Hogue said one of the biggest takeaways this past winter has been the need for more staffing, both paid employees and volunteers.

“So this year was always meant to be a little experimental and figure out what we were going to be in for. But the staffing is the big thing that came out of it, particularly around data collection. Whenever you get any type of state funding or federal funding, which we did receive state funding, there has to be data collection that happens to have outcome measures and outcome reports. You just have to be accountable to the funding that you receive,” she explained to the Daily Herald.

Having adequate staffing will be an advantage in supporting a consistent schedule for each participating warming center and enacting policies.

With Utah County’s growing population and increasing number of people experiencing homelessness, there’s a need to provide resources, but advocates were uncertain how many people would feel safe coming to a warming center.

“We’ve never done anything like this before (in Utah County). We weren’t sure what to expect,” said Community Action Services and Food Bank CEO Karen McCandless. “We didn’t know what to expect as far as community response, what to expect as far as how many people would come and how many guests we would have each night.”

McCandless says watching so many community members come together to support those who have fallen on hard times gives her hope for the future as the county works to tackle homelessness.

“People really began to develop relationships with friendships with with those experiencing homelessness, and I think they’re now much more informed and much more willing to be champions for those less fortunate in our community. So I was really impressed with the volunteers,” McCandless told the Daily Herald.

As local agencies and advocates prepare for next winter, Hogue says the overall goal is help homeless people obtain housing, as well as provide resources for vulnerable populations, individuals needing mental health support and residents with disabilities.

“The warning centers are a really great tool for us to triage and make sure people stay safe. But the work, the real work, is finding housing opportunities and those wraparound services for people experiencing homelessness,” Hogue said.


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