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MIDVALE — More than 30 Utah faith communities will offer prayers this weekend in support of homeless children, reflecting on a crisis that policymakers, service organizations and religious leaders are working together to solve.
"Homelessness and hopelessness can go hand in hand, but they do not have to," said Rabbi Ilana Schwartzman from Congregation Kol Ami, during a Thursday press conference at the Road Home Midvale Center about the "Ending Child Homelessness Sabbath."
She and other local religious leaders said they'll use their prayers to discuss the struggles of young people in need.
"So many times, children are invisible, especially those who have to live in shelters or in the backs of cars," said the Right Rev. Scott Hayashi, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Utah. "The Episcopal Church is concerned about those who have no voice and those who are invisible to the rest of society."
Rabbi Schwartzman and Bishop Hayashi were joined at the press conference by politicians and activists who outlined the scope of Utah's homelessness problem.
"About 300 families are homeless at any given time in the state," said Bill Tibbitts, associate director of Crossroads Urban Center, noting that the figure includes about 600 children.
He, like other speakers, argued that homelessness is a solvable problem, highlighting new initiatives aimed at keeping young people off the streets.
"We’re doing this at a good time. Here in Salt Lake County we have plans to move forward with reducing child homelessness, and, at the (state) Legislature right now they're considering legislation that’s going to make that a bigger goal," Tibbitts said.
The legislation he referenced is sponsored by Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy. The bill would add reducing child homelessness to the objectives of Utah government panels and agencies that address homelessness.
"We need to be proactively reaching out and addressing the needs of children, so we can truly help address the (homelessness) problem long term," Spendlove said.
Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams explained efforts to increase engagement with this issue at the community level.
"As part of our collective impact goal to minimize homelessness in Utah, we will launch a 10-year initiative to end child homelessness by focusing on four pillars of childhood stability: education, health care, safety and community development," McAdams said.
The initiative will ensure homeless children receive the care and attention they need, while also providing job training and other services to their parents, he noted.
"As you can imagine, homelessness is not conducive to normal childhood development," the mayor said. "These kids have lower educational outcomes and significantly higher rates of learning disabilities, illness, hunger and behavioral problems."
This weekend's homelessness prayers will help Utah believers get informed about governmental and faith-based efforts to help families in need, said Tibbitts, who leads Crossroad Urban Center's Coalition of Religious Communities, an interfaith group aimed at addressing poverty through political activism and community education.
"Different faith traditions don’t agree on … how prayer works. But I think everyone does agree that one thing prayer does do is transform the hearts and minds of the people who pray," he said. "It’s very significant that this weekend people from 32 congregations, from Price to Provo to Ogden, are going to be praying for homeless children."
Rabbi Schwartzman gave press conference attendees a taste of her scriptural message, sharing a biblical passage on service to the less fortunate from the Old Testament book of Isaiah.
"We must following Isaiah’s directive, caring for those who cannot care for themselves," she said.
The full list of congregations participating in this weekend's Ending Child Homelessness Sabbath is available on the Crossroads Urban Center website.