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'As a society, we still need to get our heads wrapped around how to address this. I’m not sure we can solve it, but we can do a better job.' — Provo Police Chief John King

More homeless move to Utah County after Operation Diversion raids in Salt Lake City

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If it seems like more panhandlers and more homeless individuals have been spotted across the county, you’re not wrong.

According to several community leaders and police representatives, they have become flooded with new homeless persons to provide services to and many community organizations designed to provide said services have become inundated.

But where are these new homeless individuals coming from? According to many of them, they have come to Utah County from Salt Lake County after Salt Lake City officials have conducted several waves of what they call “Operation Diversion.”

Operation Diversion

Operation Diversion was a project organized by Salt Lake City community partners, including the Salt Lake Police Department, to essentially weed out homeless individuals who are dangerous to those around them from those who genuinely need services such as food and shelter.

In late September and early October, the Salt Lake Police Department conducted two of these operations in and around the Rio Grande neighborhood of Salt Lake City. During the first operation, 49 people were arrested who had either outstanding warrants or were observed committing crimes, such as using or selling illegal drugs.

The second raid focused only on those who had active warrants.

“It’s successful if these guys get off the drugs and stay clean,” said Det. Cody Lougy with the Salt Lake City Police Department. “If we can, (let’s) get them off addictions and into the workforce.”

But the drug-addled and addicts don’t stay in jail for long, especially as a result of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, which restructured sentencing guidelines and punishments for drug abusers.

But when Salt Lake City doesn’t want them, where can the homeless go?

Rough mentality of new homeless

According to Brent Crane, director of the Food and Care Coalition in Provo, they arrive right on his doorstep.

“They were very transparent as people were coming in saying, ‘Yeah, Salt Lake City sent us down here. Salt Lake City Police sent us down here,'” Crane said.

Crane said they’ve had homeless individuals come to the Food and Care Coalition from Salt Lake City in the past, but typically for services, like free meals, a hot shower and internet access. Now, he said, they’re coming for housing and other services that are more difficult to provide.

“That’s one of the dynamics we’ve quite frankly struggled with in Utah County is housing,” Crane said.

The coalition is the closest thing to a shelter in Utah County, though it isn’t a traditional shelter; it’s technically a transitional housing facility, designed for more long-term needs.

What’s difficult for Crane is the mentality these new homeless individuals bring with them from Salt Lake City.

“There’s some of the clientele that have showed up on our doorstep that almost have a prison mentality,” Crane said. “It’s like, ‘You help me, or else.’”

Many report they were given a bus pass or FrontRunner train ticket to ride to Utah County, shifting the burden on the shoulders of Food and Care Coalition, the police and other community services.

Crane partly attributed the increased demand for Utah County resources on Operation Diversion. 

“We have our suspicions and we’re pretty comfortable in saying that they’re giving them bus tokens down here,” he said.

Crane said he was told by homeless individuals and community leaders in Salt Lake City that if the homeless didn’t want services in Salt Lake such as mental health treatment or drug abuse treatment then, “there’s the door,” he said.

“It’s moving the problem,” said John King, Provo police chief. “That’s not a criticism of them. As a society, we still need to get our heads wrapped around how to address this. I’m not sure we can solve it, but we can do a better job.”

Those presenting a more rough-around-the-edges mentality may also be contributing to an uptick in crime around Provo, King said.

“We definitely had an increase in crime in our 2016 stats. The increase that is most significant is the petty larceny that can be attributed to transients or people looking for quick cash for drugs,” King said. “The sense of civil disorder … it makes us feel uncomfortable.”

And in November, a homeless man, Ammon Brown, was killed in his tent in south Provo reportedly by another homeless individual, Enmanuel DePaz. DePaz was arrested in Salt Lake City after riding the FrontRunner to and from Provo.

“It was gang-related, but it was interrelated with the homeless situation because they went to the Food and Care, they had lunch together, and then they did their thing,” King said.

Fortunately, King said this was an anomaly, and very rarely do homeless individuals transition to violent crimes.

The Provo Police Department’s 2016 year-end stats were not available at time of publication.

Lougy was caught off guard to hear any homeless individuals were being transported from Salt Lake City to Utah County, considering the norm is vice versa.

“That doesn’t seem like an operational procedure,” he said. “I’d be surprised, since people usually send them up here where we have resources.”

Statistics

According to Karen Hale with United Way of Utah County, community organizations recently conducted their annual point-in-time study to analyze how many homeless individuals there may be in Utah County. Data will be available later this year.

However, she noted a recent spike in high-need, high-priority clients with whom community services like Wasatch Mental Health and Community Action Services work.

According to statistics Hale provided, in September, there were 67 high-need, high-priority clients being seen regularly by Utah County community organizations. In January, they had 87 high-need, high priority clients, representing a 30 percent increase in clientele.

Hale is especially concerned with these figures considering where the trend was and where it may be.

“I feel like it is making it harder to manage. Just for safety even,” Hale said. “Someone that works at Food and Care started carrying a Taser with them for the first time in nine years. We’re just not used to it.”

At the point-in-time count in 2016, many indicators in Utah County, including numbers of homeless households and number of homeless individuals were down, with some representing a drop in change of almost 75 percent.

Draining resources

As Lougy said, there are substantially more resources for homeless individuals in Salt Lake City. Utah County has rarely been looked to as a trove of resources. Yet recently, that mentality has switched, and community partners are practically drained of their resources — and it’s only January.

During the colder months, the Food and Care Coalition offers shelter and motel vouchers when the homeless are most vulnerable.

“We’ve had a number of clients pass away on the street from exposure-related things,” Crane said. “We don’t want to have that happen.”

Crane said in an average year, their grant for vouchers and cold weather supplies are spent relatively quickly, but not like he’s seen it this year.

“It’s January, and we’re already almost out of those funds,” he said. Crane’s already had to make an appeal to the state for more funds because without it, they can’t provide the services people are flocking to them for.

According to state estimates from 2015, Utah is about 46,000 short of units to serve low-income renters. Crane said he knows many who are homeless and working, but just can’t afford rent when new luxury apartments go up every other week.

“A lot of the clientele that we transition out of our facility are really having a hard time finding housing,” Crane said. Apartment owners and landlords are less willing than they once were to provide affordable housing options, Crane said.

And because of that, the Food and Care Coalition, for the first year ever, has a waiting list for their housing facilities.

What can be done

What many point to as a solution to the problem is a traditional homeless shelter for Utah County, similar to The Road Home in Salt Lake City.

But the stigma and the environment a homeless shelter of that caliber creates will do less good than intended in Crane’s opinion.

“We didn’t build a shelter because we felt it was a Band-Aid approach,” he said. “We wanted to have a service-rich environment. If you build a shelter, all you’re going to do is attract it from other communities and you’re always going to be faced with more people than beds available.

“You’ll still be faced with the visible problem of homelessness.”

Hale agreed to an extent, saying a homeless shelter could be a step in the right direction, but requires follow-up work as well.

“The bigger piece is what do they do after the homeless shelter,” she said.

King and the Provo Police Department, along with other county departments, are getting more involved in doing more than just kicking homeless people off of street corners.

King said he’s directed his officers to encourage homeless individuals to seek legitimate services, like the Food and Care Coalition or Community Action Services, rather than panhandle. The officers are also making homeless individuals aware of public safety laws such as the city code on camping on public or city property and other codes that may have previously been looked over.

King said residents can help the homeless by following many common-sense guidelines: Don’t give money, give food. Donate to legitimate charitable organizations and help where possible.

Crane said he doesn’t fault Salt Lake City for sending homeless individuals to Utah County after Operation Diversion, especially considering the current issues in finding more housing and more services for the homeless.

“Quite frankly, Salt Lake is doing a better job. You’ve got political leaders, businesses, foundations and concerned citizens that are putting the infrastructure in place,” he said. “I think they just needed a reboot on how they were doing it.”

Crane said Utah County needs to play its part better by providing more affordable and transitional housing to ease the burden off current services.

“We have to be a part of the solution,” he said. “If they’re creating crime, they need to be held accountable. But you have to open up the avenue, because if you don’t, it’s going to bottleneck and it’s just going to get worse and worse.”

Kurt Hanson is the Breaking News and Courts reporter for the Daily Herald. He can be reached via email at khanson@heraldextra.com. Follow him on Twitter: @hansonherald.

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