Utah’s homeless depend on camping

Bikes, coolers and other items are found in a homeless camp in Provo Canyon. Some of Utah’s homeless men and women have made Provo Canyon and other local canyons their home in recent years. (Saul Marquez)

Editor’s note: this story is paired with Transient camps pose complex problems for Utah County.

John Taylor Beesley was preparing to set up camp in Provo when a police officer told him he had to leave. The nearby business owners had requested that the police department cite people for loitering, according to the officer.

That posed a problem for Beesley. His bike was broken — and even if he could have gone elsewhere, it wouldn’t have helped. He was homeless and had nowhere to go.

“You’re welcome to take me to jail,” Beesley recalled telling the officer. “I’d love a warm place to stay and a free meal. I’ve got nothing to lose.”

Beesley’s story is just one of many encounters between local law enforcement and homeless individuals. Utah County has seen a significant rise in its homeless and transient population, according to the Utah County Sheriff’s Office. Homeless camps are becoming a familiar sight in and around Provo.

The challenge facing law enforcement

The Provo Police Department brought the issue of homeless camps to the Provo City Council earlier this year. They cited an increase of citizen complaints about campsites on public property from 2015-2016. The Provo City Council responded in February by passing an ordinance that banned camping on city property, including alleyways and parks.

The Utah County Sheriff’s Office proposed a similar ordinance in September to the Utah County Commission. The proposal calls for a ban on long-term transient camps in Provo Canyon as well as other local canyons. The proposed ordinance would make it easier for law enforcement to address the problem, as a current prohibition doesn’t exist in regard to long-term camps.

Shaun Glazier lived inside a tree near the Bonneville Shoreline Trail in Slate Canyon for more than a year. He set up camp in Provo Canyon last April and isn’t worried about the county’s proposal.

“I would have to go further up the mountain, where I’m out of sight and out of mind,” Glazier said. “We’d still be here in the canyons, but they wouldn’t see us. We’re pretty good at hiding.”

The challenge of camping

Living in a camp doesn’t come without its difficulties. Glazier said coyotes are a common sight where he camps, but his largest concerns are finding access to electricity and maintaining hygiene.

“We’ve got a solar generator that’s been borrowed to us,” Glazier said. “For hygiene, we use the river during the summer.”

The fall and winter seasons also pose a problem as temperatures begin to drop. Glazier keeps a propane heater near his tent.

Provo-native Steven Thomas has been homeless for a year, and said he uses some of the survival techniques he learned as a Boy Scout to survive the winter.

“I’m an Eagle Scout, we know how to deal with the cold,” Thomas said. “I need to get a lot of books, thick sleeping bags and I need to read. You wait it out.”

Thomas said he knows of some individuals who will go to desperate measures to escape the cold.

“I know a guy who’s got a key to the churches,” he said. “He can get into a church when he needs to. He’s not stealing or ruining anything. He’s just looking for somewhere warm.”

But sometimes the largest challenge is simply finding a place to set up camp. Respect is often at the forefront of Beesley’s mind when searching for a place to sleep.

“When I’m trying to figure out where I’m going to stay for the night, the only thing that’s on my mind is, am I going to offend anybody, make anyone uncomfortable?” Beesley said. He becomes frustrated when others leave trash behind and damage the land they stay on.

A large part of the difficulty is finding a way to stay hidden, according to Thomas. With police patrols scanning the area, it’s not uncommon to have to move to a new location every several months.

The challenge of finding a home

Services exist to help the homeless population in Provo, but addressing the need for shelter is difficult according to Food & Care Coalition Director Brent Crane.

“We can provide adequate food, and we can provide adequate mental health and outreach services,” he said. “What we can’t meet the need of right now is housing.”

The Food & Care Coalition offers places to sleep, but Crane said they don’t have enough beds for everyone who knocks on their door. He also feels the lack of affordable housing in Provo makes it difficult to solve the issue in the long run.

“There’s a lot of new housing developments and apartments being built, but the price point on those are quite costly,” he said.

Crane believes the scarcity of affordable housing makes the market even more competitive, putting homeless individuals at a disadvantage.

Bad credit, the lack of a rental history and competition with BYU housing are some of the difficulties Thomas has observed since being homeless.

“They don’t need to rent to anybody they don’t want to rent to, so they don’t,” Thomas said. “So what are we supposed to do? There are just no options for us.”

Beesley agreed that finding housing is difficult in Provo, especially for those who have had issues with the law in the past.

“I’ve got a friend who’s working. He’s a recovering addict, he’s on top of his game,” Beesley said. “But he’s on the streets right now because he has a criminal record. People won’t rent to him because of that.”

The challenge ahead

The thought of starting anew elsewhere isn’t an option for Thomas. He’s prepared to stay in Provo no matter the cost.

“I’m not leaving, my kids are here,” he said. “I’ll stay homeless here forever.”

Beesley also intends to stay in Provo — it’s his childhood home. While the issue is complex, he hopes the community he grew up in will be open to learning more about the issues facing homelessness. He believes the public knows very little about their situation.

“They need to get involved,” Beesley said. “They need to meet these people, talk to these people, get to know these people, share a meal with these people. What does a gentile know about the church? Nothing — until you bring him in and teach him.”

It’s a matter of compassion for Glazier.

“We’re just normal people,” he said. “We put our pants on the same way. We’ve got wants, we’ve got needs, we’ve got dreams and hopes. A smile goes a long way. We just want to be talked to like a person.”

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