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Utah faith leaders call for ‘compassion, civility’ amid controversy over homelessness

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SALT LAKE CITY — Amid continuous and at times fierce contention over state, city and county efforts to overhaul the state's troubled homeless services system, Utah faith leaders Thursday issued a joint statement calling for "compassion and civility."

"The depth and strength of a community’s character can be measured by how it treats its most vulnerable citizens," according to the statement issued by the Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable.

"As a group representing many faiths, we implore all to seek a deeper understanding of the many paths that lead to homelessness and to join our common efforts to assist our homeless brothers and sisters in meeting their needs for housing and other services that will help them achieve economic independence and a life of dignity," faith leaders said.

The letter — signed by nine religious leaders from various faiths — comes after communities in South Salt Lake, West Valley City and Draper fought to keep a new homeless resource center out of their neighborhoods.

Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams considered nine sites in those cities before eventually siting the facility in South Salt Lake — which Mayor Cherie Wood said would be a "lethal blow" to a city that already hosts an array of social service facilities.

Preceding McAdams' site selection in South Salt Lake, Draper Mayor Troy Walker volunteered two potential sites within his city, under the impression that his prosperous city "could step up to the plate and make a difference" when county leaders were struggling to find a community that would welcome sharing the burden that has largely been shouldered by Salt Lake City.

"It's the right thing to do; it's the Christian thing to do," Walker said at the time. "It's the thing that will set us apart and make us the kind of people we are."

But the very next day, Walker rescinded his offer after enduring four hours of outrage in an open house attended by more than 700 of his constituents, demanding he take back his offer — many screaming, booing, calling for his impeachment and some threatening lawsuits.

Salt Lake City leaders also experienced outrage from Sugar House residents, who adamantly protested the city's initial plan to build one of four 150-bed homeless resource centers in a single-family neighborhood on Simpson Avenue. Soon after, state, county and city leaders revised the plan to build two 200-bed shelters in Salt Lake City, and one 300-bed shelter elsewhere in Salt Lake County.

In Thursday's statement, faith leaders referred to the "golden rule."

"Confucius said, 'Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself,'" the letter stated. "The Talmud states, 'What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.' Christ said, 'Do to others as you would have them do to you,' and the Prophet Mohammad peace be upon him said: 'None of you (truly) believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.'”

Faith leaders said Utah communities "have a wonderful opportunity to minister as we work together to ensure all people in our community can meet their basic needs."

"We ask all to move forward with the golden rule etched in our hearts, demonstrating good will toward all men and women," the letter concluded.

The letter was signed by:

• Pamela Atkinson, community leader and Presbyterian elder

• Bishop Gérald Caussé, presiding bishop of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

• The Rev. France Davis, pastor of the Salt Lake Calvary Baptist Church

• The Rt. Rev. Scott B. Hayashi, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Utah

• Father Elias Koucos, Holy Trinity Cathedral — Prophet Elias Greek Orthodox Church

• Rabbi Ilana Schwartzman, Congregation Kol Ami, Salt Lake City

• Imam Muhammad Shoayb Mehtar, Islamic Society of Greater Salt Lake

• The Most Rev. Oscar A. Solis, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City

• Josie Stone, chairwoman of the Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable