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SALT LAKE CITY — Faith leaders from the Utah [Coalition of Religious Communities](Coalition of Religious Communities) set up tents outside the Salt Lake County Government Center on Thursday to speak with county officials, urging them to end homelessness by allocating $45 million in federal funding the county will receive through the American Rescue Plan Act towards various projects.
Five of the nine members of the Salt Lake County Council attended, along with representatives from Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson's office.
Through the American Rescue Plan Act passed in March 2021, Salt Lake County will get $225 million in federal funds over the next two years to be invested into the community to help recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. This act includes funds targeted to fight homelessness as well as resources for extending unemployment benefits, issuing $1,400 payments to individuals, emergency paid leave, expanding the child tax credit, increased education funding and grants to small businesses and local governments, as well as other relief programs.
The coalition is asking for 20% of those funds to go toward producing housing needed to reduce homelessness for families, people with disabilities and seniors.
"A chance like this does not come around often," said Ebony Tyler, of Granger Community Christian Church. "We can no longer wait. Homelessness does not discriminate. It could happen to any of us."
Coalition leaders cited the success of Utah's Housing First program, which emphasizes housing unhoused people first, then focusing on meeting their other needs once they have the safety and stability of having a place to live.
The Rev. Brigette Weier, of Our Savior's Lutheran Church, read John 14:2 from the Bible: "In my house, there are many mansions."
"There is indeed room for everyone. We know this. There is a space of love and security and dignity for all people," she said. "There is room for everyone, and there is a room for everyone."
The idea is to use the funds to cover the upfront expenses of infrastructure, such as creating permanent housing for low-income families, renovating motels, creating more shelter space and investing in drug treatment.
The money would come back later in the form of a healthier community and economy, the Rev. Weier added.
"No one deserves to be sleeping on the streets, especially in harsh weather conditions during a global pandemic. Everyone is entitled to proper housing no matter their situation. No matter the choices they have made," Tyler said in a press release.
Tyler faced housing insecurity as a child and knows the shame and humility that came with that experience. People assume those around them are taken care of, but in reality, every day more people lose their homes to eviction, failing health, job loss and many other reasons, she explained.
"I remember how heavy the room would grow when faced with another eviction notice," she said. "Now hundreds of children and families are asking what is going to happen to them. No one was prepared for a pandemic and the subsequent fallout."
The speakers placed special emphasis on how homelessness affects children, with an increase in domestic violence and mental health, and a decrease in education and personal safety.
The Rev. Curtis Price stated that the most common age among unhoused people is 1 year old.
He added financial and local context to the discussion, noting that Utah has just experienced one of the best economic recoveries in the country from the pandemic, and wealthy developers are creating a plethora of high-end luxury housing while homelessness gets worse in Salt Lake County.
"Tent sites are cropping up all over the city and all three of all the shelters are … operating at near-capacity and have been since they opened," the Rev. Price said. "If we can't do this now, when will we ever have this kind of money?"
Council members Aimee Winder Newton, Arlyn Bradshaw, and Laurie Stringham and Kerri Nakamura, chief of staff for Wilson, spoke in favor of using some of the ARPA funds to address homelessness in Salt Lake County.
"(Having five council members here) is a rare event to have happen outside of a council meeting, and we're not normally here on a Thursday afternoon. We came down to listen to you," Bradshaw told the community members gathered at the event.
Bill Tibbits, associate director of Crossroads Urban Center, said that the center and the coalition would be showing up to council meetings and pushing for this cause for the next two years as the ARPA funding comes in.
"This is just the beginning," he said.