Transient camps pose complex problems for Utah County

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Editor’s note: this story is paired with Utah’s homeless depend on camping.

The Utah County Sheriff’s Office is pushing for an ordinance to ban long-term homeless and transient camps in local canyons. The effort comes after an increase in Utah County’s transient population, according to Sgt. Wayne Keith.

The sheriff’s office proposed the ordinance to the Utah County Commission in September. They hope the ordinance will give them the power they need to discourage homeless individuals from using public property in ways they weren’t intended to be used. They also hope to establish a protocol for campsite cleanup, as there’s currently no process in place to clean trash and waste that is left in abandoned camps.

“At this time there’s not a whole lot we can do when we encounter these transient camps,” Lt. Yvette Rice told the commission.

Sheriff deputies can write citations under the code of federal regulations, but the amount of time and the difficulty of following up is challenging under the current system, according to Keith.

“We’re not federal officers,” Keith said. “If we cite these people, the likelihood that they’re going to appear in federal court is very low, which then means that we’ll have to put in a federal warrant for their arrest. It’s just not effective.”

Keith became familiar with transient camps during his time on Utah County’s canyon team. He defines transient camps as bases of criminal operation — places where drugs and stolen items are often found. He believes public safety is at the heart of the issue and said Provo Canyon has been affected the most.

“At some point you’ve got to protect the public,” Keith said. “I hate looking like the bad guy, but at some point, you’ve got to clean up these areas so other people can use them, make it safe so their kids can go up there.”

Many of the camps are near walking paths and parks that the public typically enjoys.

Keith suspects there’s spillover from Salt Lake County, which has been dealing with its own transient camps in recent months as part of Operation Rio Grande — a three-phase initiative to address the transient population in Salt Lake City’s Rio Grande district.

“A lot of the people that we deal with will tell us that they come from the transient camps in Salt Lake,” Keith said.

Brent Crane is the director of the Food & Care Coalition, an organization in Provo that reaches out to those in need by providing places to sleep, meals and mental health services. He’s also noticed a spike in the homeless population.

“We were never able to house all of our homeless in Utah County before this, so it’s only exacerbated (the problem),” Crane said. “We’re also seeing a clientele that’s probably more severely mentally ill and more deeply seeded into addiction than what we had ever seen before.”

The Provo Police Department wouldn’t comment on whether they’ve seen a change in the homeless population since Operation Rio Grande.

Crane said he understands law enforcement’s concern around transient camps, but he worries that camping bans don’t properly address the issue. He believes that a Provo City ordinance passed earlier this year — similar to the ordinance proposed by the Utah County Sheriff’s Office — exacerbates the problem.

A card lists services the homeless population can use to get help with drug abuse. Sgt. Wayne Keith keeps the cards in his pocket to hand out when needed. (Utah County Sheriff’s Office)

“With a camping ordinance, you’re basically criminalizing homelessness,” Crane said. “You’re basically saying you’re not wanted here. It’s forcing people to seek greater cover, to try to be more secretive about where they stay.”

Crane said he’s open to the idea of a camping ordinance, as long as adequate resources are available to those affected, especially when it comes to affordable housing.

Keith emphasized that the sheriff’s office wishes to show compassion when interacting with the homeless population, which includes connecting them to available resources to aid in issues like drug abuse. He said they’ve already reached out to Food & Care Coalition as well as Wasatch Mental Health, and anticipates working with them more in the future to find a solution that works.

“We really do care about the welfare of these people,” Keith said. “We’re not just going to run up and say, ‘Hey, there’s a camp right here, let’s arrest them all and take them to jail.’ We’re going to try to assess the situation to see what needs we can address first. But at some point, we need to have some teeth if we can’t clean it up another way.”

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