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A homeless man bundles up near a fire on 700 South in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020. The Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute on Tuesday published a report identifying major problems within the state’s current homeless governance structure.

Jeffrey D. Allred, KSL, File

Utah's religious leaders want to find solutions to state's child homelessness problem

By Lauren Bennett, KSL.com | Posted - Jan. 13, 2021 at 6:11 p.m.



SALT LAKE CITY — A recent report from Utah's Crossroads Urban Center found that young children experiencing homelessness are more likely to struggle in school and be exposed to domestic violence along with other abuses; Utah's religious leaders want to do something about it.

The Coalition of Religious Communities met with state legislators Wednesday to discuss policy solutions to the serious problem facing the state.

"Christ tells us that our community work as Christians must be about blessing our children," said Rev. Joan Bell-Haynes, the executive regional minister of the Central Rocky Mountain Region for the Disciples of Christ church.

A total of 6,698 individuals from families with children received homeless services in the state in 2019, and 4,212 from that same demographic received services during the first six months of 2020, according to a report from the Crossroads Urban Center. Researchers hypothesized that the COVID-19 pandemic made some hesitant to use services.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also announced Wednesday its efforts to combat homelessness in Utah with a $3.3 million donation to five organizations that provide shelter and other services to the state's homeless population.

"We reach out to all of God's children without exception," Bishop W. Christopher Waddell, first counselor in the Presiding Bishopric, said in a statement. "As a church, one of our priorities is caring for those in need, and we can't do it on our own."

Thousands of children aged 6 and younger received homeless services in the state in 2019 and in the first half of 2020, with a total of 4,254 young children in the state receiving the same services from 2017-2019.

"Gandhi once said: 'The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.' If we were to measure ourselves right now as we see statistics of homelessness on the rise across our country and state, especially the economic crisis so many individuals and families are experiencing due to COVID, we would have to admit we are far from the ideals we hold for our common life," said Rev. Karen Oliveto, bishop for the United Methodist Church's Mountain Sky Area.

Building critical infrastructure and addressing the state's affordable housing crisis are tangible steps the state should take to combat homelessness among children, said Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City.

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"The lack of affordable housing also impacts our opportunities for economic growth. Having affordable housing is a critical component of diverse and stable economic health in the state of Utah," he said.

Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, said addressing the issue of homelessness requires a holistic approach that brings housing stability, food stability, and health coverage.

"We have to invest in families and children and people in the human capital," she said. "The state of Utah continues to be so proud of being the best-managed state; I think we want to be also the state that invests in people the best way, and we're certainly not there yet."

Last year, the state legislature drafted a bill that would allocate funds to affordable housing. But, a lot of that housing funding was pulled back due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, Kitchen explained.

"If we're gonna build 2,300 units with $15 million, that would have provided an enormous safety net for these families — families that are experiencing homelessness and that are drawing on our critical services and, really, living in the rough."

Kitchen says one of the first steps lawmakers should take is securing back that funding for affordable housing. Newly-elected Gov. Spencer Cox recently released his governor's budget proposal, which did not restore the funding that was stripped in May. It's something Kitchen called "unfortunate."

"We really need to be bold, we need to be imaginative, and we need to look at what we have in front of us. We have the cash; it's a matter of priorities," he continued. "The pandemic, itself, has created serious concerns for how people will continue to pay their rent and mortgages, and it's important that we, as leaders, step up with solutions."

Lauren Bennett

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