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Guest opinion: Provo City’s camping ban flies in the face of freedom

By Bonnie Shiffler-Olsen - | Jul 10, 2024

Courtesy photo

Bonnie Shiffler-Olsen

Last week, I attended the America’s Freedom Festival at Provo Grand Parade, where tents, sleeping bags and lawn chairs clogged Center Street and University Avenue. I was dismayed. Provo’s sidewalks teemed with thousands of proud Amercans dressed in red, white and blue; everywhere, stars and stripes waved – but I saw nothing in the way of liberty and justice.

In 2017, Provo adopted an anti-camping ordinance to address homelessness in our city. Chapter 9.18 of city code stipulates a strictly enforced camping ban – except for the purpose of attending the Freedom Festival parade. In 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that anti-camping ordinances such as ours infringe on an unhoused person’s Eighth Amendment right to live free of cruel and unusual punishment.

On June 28, the Supreme Court reversed that decision and gave cities across the U.S. the green light to adopt laws that target the homeless. Provo can impose anti-camping measures, but that doesn’t mean we must.

Concern over homeless encampments is justified, but I hear this ruling as a call for communities to get creative and explore humane ways to integrate homeless people into housed society rather than herding them like livestock.

Recent figures indicate that of the 840,000 residents in the Provo/Orem area, 24.9% live at or below poverty level. Anyone living at or below poverty level runs a 1/25 chance of becoming unsheltered. The nation’s rates of homelessness are exploding like fireworks across the face of the nation. In Provo, an estimated 200 to 300 persons live without homes, and as that number grows, the city’s camping restrictions serve to sweep the crisis under the rug.

For the past decade, I’ve worked in outreach, peer support and advocacy for Provo’s unhoused. In that time, I had opportunity to learn names, hear stories and become close to formerly incarcerated persons, addicts and the mentally ill. Regardless of the circumstances leading to their homelessness, I admire these great men and women. They face insurmountable challenges – weathering winter storms and withering heat – and they persevere in spite of constant threat of harm.

I do not believe officers of the peace intend to harm the unhoused, but enforcement of city law is what the police do. As long as Chapter 9.18 is on city books, an officer is responsible to wake persons sleeping in public, instruct them to clear out and cite them for criminal camping. This city-sanctioned behavior is what fuels the notion that all officers are bad guys in uniform. No matter how it might conflict with an individual officer’s morals and values, the Provo Police Department is not at liberty to shirk this obligation. How then can we ask our police to fulfill their oath of honor, when unjust ordinances task them to regularly harass economically vulnerable residents?

Prior to his death, my dad, a decorated Vietnam veteran, experienced homelessness. In 1968-1969, at the height of the war, he served as an Army Airborne Combat Medic Specialist. My father returned to the country with two purple hearts, impaired hearing, shrapnel scars and PTSD. Five years after he came home, doctors discovered and removed the first brain tumor that bloomed from exposure to Agent Orange. Even though we were a patriotic family, we did not speak of Vietnam. Instead, my father’s erratic moods and violent outbursts punctuated my childhood like grenades and eventually lead to his eviction from our home. Chronic homelessness swallowed up the years he had left.

In December 1993, I traveled from Utah to Santa Monica, California, to reunite with my dad before VA brain surgeons removed the second tumor. Because there were no affordable housing options, I spent that holiday season at the Sunlight Mission Church homeless shelter so I could be there for my father. I quickly learned street smarts and what it takes to survive harsh economic barriers.

The last time I saw him alive, my dad lay in a hospital bed. His eyes briefly fluttered open. I’d done enough for him, he told me. “Go home,” he said. “See to your education.” Then he fell back to sleep. I returned to Utah with the duffle bag I’d carried through Santa Monica and no address. I struggled for several months to get back on my feet.

In the weeks leading up to my enrollment at Utah State University, I camped. In April of 1994, I zipped up my tent a final time and went on to assume numerous leadership positions, the honor of being distinguished as a Mormon poet and the role of motherhood. I’m grateful for my dad’s ultimate sacrifice in Vietnam and his parting advice. His service enabled me to access veterans survivor education benefits so that I possess necessary knowledge and skill to answer the call to serve to my community.

My story isn’t that different from other unhoused persons except that I got lucky. I consistently showed up in the right place at the right time to tap available resources, including government assistance, discount therapy, clothing donations, SNAP benefits, LDS welfare assistance, low-income social programs, case managers and peer support specialists. The police showed me compassion, strangers were kind enough to give me their spare change and I was empowered to create solid relationships with the housed. That is what it took to become a poster kid for recovery from homelessness.

Every morning that I get out of bed, I’m grateful for my Provo home and the welcome mat at my front door. I believe the unhoused have an unalienable right to live free from tyranny and oppression in pursuit of the American dream. We the people enjoy freedom to make and keep just laws, and I believe we must. It’s time to look in the mirror at our patriotic regalia and evaluate if it matches our actions. Please stand with me in pledging allegiance to liberty. It’s time to repeal Chapter 9.18 and grant the homeless freedom to roll out a sleeping bag in their quest for health and happiness.

Bonnie Shiffler-Olsen is an American poet, essayist and advocate for the unhoused. She spearheads the Community Compassion Cooperative, a volunteer organization whose goal is to relieve the suffering of the area’s unhoused and promote recovery.

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