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After hearing from the police department that more residents and businesses were calling to complain about a rise in homeless campers in public areas, Provo's city council this week voted to define and ban camping on city property like sidewalks, parking strips, alleys and roads a move some feared wouldn't help end the problem.
Provo's mayor and city councilors describe the ordinance as "one more tool to fight homelessness." The police department, which asked for the ordinance, said it would help push high-needs homeless people to available help.
But some in Provo say that while the ordinance might get people out of sight, resources are already stretched thin among the groups giving aid to homeless residents.
"The bottleneck is affordable housing down here," said Brian Butler, program manager of the homeless outreach program at Wasatch Mental Health. "We really need to put the resources toward ... getting people off the street."
Some groups in Provo help homeless families find housing. The city has food banks and mental health resources. There are also vouchers that get people into motels overnight, or for several weeks if money is available.
But Butler said the system is a "patchwork" of various groups offering aid, which isn't meeting the need in the city or county.
Margy Layton, who works with inmates preparing to leave the Utah County jail, fears that without resources to help people find long-term housing, the city's new policy could send more people to jail, which she said exacerbates the problem.
"I'm very, very concerned it's going to keep people more trapped in the criminal justice system," Layton said. "I definitely see a correlation between not having a stable place to live and being in jail."
Layton conducted a survey of over half the jail population late last year. She found nearly half the inmates who responded didn't know where they would go, or they planned to head to a risky place on their first night out of jail.
Inmates with nowhere else to go are transported from the jail in Spanish Fork and dropped off on county property near Provo, Layton said.
While the city ordinance says Provo is committed to helping homeless residents, it also says that "it intends to prohibit the use of public property for the purpose of maintaining a temporary dwelling place."
"This is a big deal and it's easy to try to vilify the council," Councilman Dave Knecht said. "To me, it was done with reluctance, like, 'Well if there's no other way, let's do this and see what happens.' "
Knecht, who has lived in Provo since 1971, said he has seen first-hand the growing homeless population in places visible from the road. He said that while homeless resources may not meet the need, he and other councilors felt they needed to do something.
He said the success of the ordinance will depend on how the police department rolls it out.
Sgt. Brian Taylor, a Provo police spokesman, said "there's a great deal of flexibility" for officers to consider what action to take when they confront homeless people camping on public property under the ordinance, which he said still has to be signed by the mayor.
"Officers are under no obligation to cite someone," said Taylor, adding that officers won't be "scouring" parks for people camping out. "It's for the ones who are at most risk [and are] resistant to services."
The ordinance says that if no other overnight shelter is available, homeless residents can camp in public places like parks and other open space. But the ordinance indefinitely bans sleeping on sidewalks, parking strips, in alleys, or public right of ways, whether or not there are other places to go.