Winter is a time when many of us stay inside in the warmth of our homes as much as we can, avoiding the cold and often wet conditions outside in Utah County. But, not everyone has the choice to stay warm or be cold.
Recently, I had the opportunity to talk with some people who are currently struggling with homelessness for two articles illustrating the problem in our communities. They are some of the hidden homeless — they have shelter of sorts, but not homes. One lives in his vehicle, never enjoying a good night’s sleep because of the cold, and another in a trailer, often having difficulty finding places to park. These are just two of many.
On any given night in Utah County, there are those who are not protected from the elements. Every January, hundreds of people across the United States volunteer to go out during the night and look for people who are sleeping in cars, parks, abandoned buildings, bus stations or anywhere else that is not meant for human habitation. The annual Point in Time Count is a way to determine how many are currently homeless and to connect them with services.
Many of the volunteers in Utah County are students from Brigham Young University and Utah Valley University, but anyone can volunteer to help. The event is overseen by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Information retrieved from the effort helps to determine funding and to keep track of trends of homelessness.
Locally, the Point in Time Count is organized by Mountainland Continuum of Care. The dates for the upcoming count are Jan. 24-26. To volunteer to help with this important undertaking, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ways to help the homeless immediately include donating to the Food and Care Coalition, helping the organization’s effort of “No One Left Cold.” Anyone can easily donate monetarily on the website, http://www.foodandcare.org or through Venmo @FoodandCare. Hygiene items, sleeping bags, adult thermals, gloves and hand towels are currently urgently needed at the coalition. Gift cards to grocery stores are always welcome because the Food and Care Coalition can purchase food tax free, when needed. Donating time to help prepare and serve hot meals is another way to serve.
Don’t forget about donating food to Tabitha’s Way Food Pantries in American Fork and Spanish Fork and Community Action Services and Food Bank in Provo. Many homeless people are able to eat because of these organizations. Volunteers at Tabitha’s Way in American Fork say that they have clients who live in tents, in cars, on couches or floors of extended family members’ homes and even temporarily in motels, while trying to find affordable housing.
Longer-term ways to help the homeless include supporting solutions to the affordable housing problem in our communities. According to Lynell Smith, executive director of Utah County Housing Authority, residents can get involved by encouraging city and county leaders to make important changes. Some of these changes could be allowing accessory apartments, ensuring that zoning policies support a diversity of housing types, encouraging mixed-income developments, using abandoned retail sites for affordable housing and proactively encouraging landlords to set aside ten percent of units for low-income individuals.
So many in Utah County show compassion and respect for our homeless brothers and sisters. One gentleman who I spoke to told me of his first time going to Tabitha’s Way Food Pantry for help. He has been homeless for two years. He was nervous to go inside, wondering how he would be treated. When he did enter, he saw how busy they were, so he turned and left. A volunteer from the pantry followed him outside, greeted him warmly and led him back in to get food. Warmth can be shared in more than one way this winter.