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‘We’re humans, just like anybody else’: Utah County’s invisible homelessness problem

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“Sparky” Swensen had nowhere to turn when he got out of Utah State Prison in September 2018 after serving time for methamphetamine possession. Having been addicted to meth for years, the 46-year-old had no place to stay upon getting out and pondered how he would start building a stable life.

Swensen lived in a motel for awhile but eventually fell behind on making the nightly payments. As a convicted felon, it has been nearly impossible for him to find consistent work. So Swensen, who is originally from Richfield, Virginia, but spent most of his childhood in Orem, turned to the streets of Provo, where he’s lived for the last 13 months.

“It’s been a real struggle,” Swensen said.

Swensen’s story is far from unique. According to local estimates, there are at least 240 individuals who show up at Provo homeless resource centers on a consistent basis, and thousands of others who use the services less frequently.

Despite these numbers, those who work with Utah County’s homeless population say the issue gets overlooked and the county lacks the necessary resources to help individuals get their lives together. Some people say there are countywide ordinances that make the everyday lives of the area’s homeless more arduous than they already are.

“It’s probably a lot more visible in downtown Salt Lake,” said Robert Johns, director of Alpine House, a halfway house in Provo that serves homeless individuals suffering from mental illness. “There’s probably different perceptions of it in Provo, where maybe there might be some people that are in denial about whether it really exists here. But it does.”

The squeaky wheel

Brent Crane runs the Food and Care Coalition, the largest homeless resource center in Utah County that formally came into existence in 1988 after the defunding of mental health institutions in the 1980s, which resulted in “a lot of those individuals end(ing) up on the street with no resources.”

There are no homeless shelters in Utah Valley, a place where people can drop in and have a temporary place to stay. The Provo-based Food and Care Coalition provides on-site showers and barber services, transitional housing, hygiene items like toothpaste and deodorant, winter clothing and three meals a day. Additionally, the volunteer organization offers case management, educational services and partners with community health centers that provide dental and mental health services.

The coalition’s service facility, built in 2009, has 38 transitional housing rooms, which Crane said is not enough to meet the needs of the county’s homeless population.

“We don’t have nearly the amount of beds (we need),” Crane said. “And that’s something we’re trying to address.

Crane said the coalition plans to build 72 permanent supportive housing units, a project that’s been approved by the city but is still in need of “substantial funds.” The expected cost of the project is $7.8 million, $4.8 million of which has already been raised, according to Crane.

“We’re hoping to break ground on those new 82 units in the spring,” said Crane.

The Food and Care Coalition, which has an annual budget of $2 million, is primarily funded through donations from church groups, corporations and individuals, according to Crane. The state provides about $30,000 in funding a year and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) gives an additional $40,000 to $50,000. Provo and Orem supply about $10,000 a year in federal grant money.

Crane said more cities in the county need to fund homeless service centers through their annual budgets, and Utah County needs a “more fair share of disbursement of state funds,” he said.

“We’re the second largest county in the state,” Crane said, “and yet we’re well down the list in terms of allocated funding from the state.

The coalition director added that state officials often overlook Utah County and other counties when it comes to providing resources to address homelessness.

“Salt Lake has the benefit of media coverage (and) TV coverage,” Crane said. “All these new funding dollars that have built these new resource centers (in Salt Lake City) have not been equally dispersed through other areas of need throughout the state. So the squeaky wheel gets the grease.”

Pushed out of Salt Lake

Born and raised in Provo, Dee has been homeless for the past four years. Rather than relocate to a bigger city with more resources, Dee said she chooses to stay in Provo because Salt Lake scares her. Bigger cities mean more drug use, crime and prostitution, she said.

But ever since 2017’s Operation Rio Grande, a multi-agency effort to crack down on homelessness and drug use in the downtown Salt Lake area that resulted in the arrest of thousands of homeless individuals, Dee said people have been leaving the state’s capital and coming to Utah County.

“There’s a lot of cities (in Utah County) that are experiencing panhandling and homeless individuals present in their communities that had never been there before,” agreed Crane.

On Nov. 21, Salt Lake City’s Road Home shelter, equipped with 1,100 beds, permanently closed its doors. Although it has been known for years that the Road Home would be closing, the announcement prompted protests from homeless advocates who said the city’s new resource shelters have an inadequate number of beds, and therefore the shelter’s closure will result in hundreds of people being left without a warm place to sleep.

Crane said homeless resource providers in Utah County are “worried about the potential” of the Road Home closing, believing it will push people into cities that lack resources to help homeless individuals.

“I mean, we’re already seeing it,” Crane said, referring to increases in homelessness in the county in recent years. “So we’re not sure if it’s going to continue to grow or if it’s just going to be status quo.”

Crane said that he supports closing down the Road Home, calling the facility an “antiquated model” that needs to close to make way for more “collaborative service models.”

Crane added that he understands “both sides of the fence” and is empathetic to the concerns of protesters. The shelter’s closure “highlights the fact that sometimes we treat our animals better than (our) homeless,” he said. “I mean, we’ve got animal shelters that have adequate bed capacity. And yet we’re not there when it comes to housing for our homeless friends.”

Impact of local ordinances

In June 2018, the Utah County Commission unanimously passed an ordinance banning camping on county property. The ordinance was an effort to target long-term homeless camps in Utah County’s canyons, such as Provo Canyon and American Fork Canyon.

“In the last couple of years we have seen an increase in transient-type camps throughout Utah County, specifically in our canyon areas,” Utah County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Yvette Rice told the commission in September 2018, according to the Daily Herald. “What we are finding is that there is becoming a significant negative environmental impact to the areas.”

Crane said he opposed the camping ban, feeling that it took things “a little too far” and effectively “criminalized” homeless campsites.

“We (the Food and Care Coalition) already felt like law enforcement in (Provo) had a means to address that,” Crane said, such as trespassing and unlawful congregating laws.

He said the camping ordinance pushes many of his clients “underground” or into hiding. “That’s problematic,” Crane said. “It’s not the right way to do it.”

But Crane is supportive of other local restrictions, such as Provo’s 2013 ordinance prohibiting occupants of a moving vehicle from giving money to panhandlers. Under the ordinance, a person must pull their car off the road and out of traffic to legally give money to someone soliciting money.

Crane said the ordinance prevents “organized campaign(s) of panhandlers coming in from out of state” and taking advantage of people in the county.

“From all the studies I’ve seen … about three out of 10 people (panhandling) are actually homeless,” he said. “The rest are there to take advantage of you.”

Wanting to help the homeless is a good thing, Crane said, “but panhandling isn’t the way because it just fosters and encourages more panhandling.”

Swensen, who has spent a year being homeless in Provo, feels differently about the panhandling ordinance. He said it discourages people from helping the homeless and makes it harder for him and others to get money to eat or pay for a place to sleep.

“It’s heinous,” Swensen said.

Helping Utah County’s homeless

Pita Hopoate has spent the last five years doing his part to help Utah County’s homeless population. He works at the Alpine House transitional housing city as a “houseparent,” a line of work he got into through his two brothers, who were houseparents in the early 2000s.

“It’s a rewarding type of work,” said Hopoate. “You see the benefits and the positive that happens to people’s lives because of what we do here.”

Alpine House provides affordable housing and food for single individuals experiencing homelessness and struggling with mental health issues. The house has 18 beds and costs $500 a month to stay in, Hopoate said, adding that there are currently nine residents in the house.

“We’re just doing our part here in helping (homeless individuals) transition into more independence,” he said.

Alpine House partners with the Provo clinic of Wasatch Mental Health to find individuals that are a “good fit” for the house’s “family environment,” said Johns, the Alpine House director.

“We’ve had a lot of different experts tell us that (our residents) would be homeless if they didn’t have this program,” Johns said. “Because they just can’t afford something else.”

Houseparents at Alpine House expect residents to work or be in structured life skills programming during the day, Johns said, and do chores around the house “like you would in a family.”

Hopoate said the facility has had “some good success stories” with residents who successfully transition into stable, independent lifestyles.

One man currently living at Alpine House, for example, has been approved by his case manager to move into his own apartment. “But I think he feels that this is a place of security,” Hopoate said. “He continues to stay with us for now.”

With only 18 beds, Alpine House can’t help everyone in Utah County experiencing homelessness. Johns said that individuals with substance abuse problems or with extensive criminal histories are “typically not going to be a good fit” for the facility.

Crane, of the Food and Care Coalition, said the way to address homelessness is for the county to provide more affordable housing options. “Until we solve (the affordable housing) issue,” Crane said, “we’re going to continue to go down this painful path.”

For Swensen, a simple first step would be county residents treating homeless individuals with compassion and acknowledging their existence.

“We’re humans, just like anybody else,” Swensen said. “We bleed, we freeze just like anybody else.”

When he rides his bike around Provo, Swensen said people will purposefully look the other way rather than make eye contact. He wishes people would instead “walk up to us, ask us how we’re doing.”

“Small talk means the world,” Swensen said.

Connor Richards covers government, the environment and south Utah County for the Daily Herald. He can be reached at crichards@heraldextra.com and 801-344-2599.”

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