Faith leaders from across Utah convened to express support for legislative proposals to reduce homelessness and to request legislators do the same.

Meeting in the Capitol Thursday, leaders from different faith communities expressed how they feel inspired by their faith to help others. The Rev. Hansen Wendlandt from Community of Grace Presbyterian Church said if God were here, “those who need homes and the vast amount of support that comes around a home, they would be supported.”

The Rev. Wendlandt said, “The question I have is what we can do, what steps we can take, the legislative community, all of those, all of the spaces that overlaps — what can we do to make it on earth as it is in heaven?”

As Brianna Jackman from Powerful Moms Who Care spoke about her family’s experience being homeless, many in the room grew visibly emotional. Jackman and her family, including two children, experienced homelessness multiple times in the last decade. She related how difficult it was to explain to her children what was happening as well as the unique challenges that came because her children are on the autism spectrum.

“You know how scary it is for two children on the autism spectrum at the ages of 5 and 9 to comprehend why their family is in this situation,” Jackman said. “Try as I might, I couldn’t help understand why.”

Finding permanent housing was difficult for the Jackman family — she said they were turned down because they were in the family shelter. “The stigma of being homeless followed us everywhere,” Jackman said. “People assumed that we were looking for a handout and not a hand up.”

Concluding her remarks, Jackman called for an end to homelessness. “A lot of homeless families are sleeping outside in the unbearably freezing weather. And they never wake up the next day,” Jackman said. “Let’s put an end to this epidemic.”

The Rev. Vinnetta Golphin Wilkerson of the Granger Community Christian Church DOC praised the Utah Legislature’s efforts last year to spend $10 million to purchase a hotel for a shelter. “Now we have a place that will serve children and their families because our legislators and our governor care enough and had courage enough to invest in hope and practical love for our neighbors.”

“Because of this phenomenal effort, we are a step closer to what Martin Luther King would call the beloved community,” the Rev. Wilkerson said.

Another faith leader, Kena Matthews from the Provo Community Congregational United Church of Christ, said, “Twenty-three years ago, last weekend, I lost a homeless man, a friend, on the streets of Utah County in Provo, Utah. He died of exposure in an abandoned car. Twenty-three years later, on the day he died, we opened our first warming center in Utah County.”

Wayne Niederhauser, the director of Utah’s Office of Homeless Service, explained that while Gov. Spencer Cox asking for $152 million is “a big ask,” he believes it can make a big difference.

“I go out every week on outreach,” Niederhauser said, explaining that he’s done that for the last two years. When he speaks to people who aren’t in shelters, he said several of them are experiencing trauma and anxiety. The development of microshelters has opened up a space for people who experience anxiety around other kinds of shelters.

Niederhauser explained that the work to solve homelessness in Utah will have to be ongoing and not just be from a one-time budget decision.

“You’ll notice that the governor’s budget has some significant money, $25 million one time, to create some additional shelters,” Niederhauser said. “We’d rather create housing, but our deficit of housing is so great we’re going to have to have some additional shelter until that housing catches up.”

Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, speaks briefly about her homelessness bill as she joins with representatives from numerous faith groups and organizations gathered at the Capitol in Salt Lake City for Faith, Hunger and Homelessness Day to express support for legislative proposal that would reduce homelessness on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Reps. Carol Spackman Moss, Steve Eliason and Jim Dunnigan were also present to discuss bills that they are sponsoring to reduce homelessness.

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Moss, D-Holladay, said that it was “critical” for children to have access to stable housing because it helps them learn at school and thrive in their lives. She is sponsoring HB141, which would require the Division of Finance to transfer funds from liquor sale revenues to the Olene Walker Housing Loan Fund, which is a program that aids in affordable housing.

“We desperately need to address this affordable housing crisis and this is one way to do it,” Moss said.

As Utah legislators decide what initiatives around reducing homelessness they’ll support, the Rev. Lora Young from the South Valley Unitarian Universalist said, “We actually have an opportunity to be a model in the United States for how to deal with and resolve so many of these issues.”

“It is essential though that we back up our words with funding,” the Rev. Young said. “There is $10 million in Gov. Cox’s budget that will support staffing and that is fundamental and foundational to the success of every facility that we open.”

At the conclusion of the event, dozens of faith leaders and members from various churches across the Beehive State signed a letter to the Utah Senate and Utah House of Representatives.

“As clergy and lay leaders from a variety of faith traditions, we share the belief that no person should be forced to sleep outside in a state as prosperous as Utah,” the letter said. Specifically, the letter endorsed Cox’s budget recommendations and asked the Legislature to “prioritize these initiatives that will help vulnerable and often unseen people to have a basic level of human dignity.”

“We have the opportunity,” the Rev. Young said. “This is a wealthy state and that can make the difference. The word is getting out that Salt Lake and Utah are a great place to live, so let’s make sure that as people move into our community, we don’t push out the others of us who have been here for generations.”

State Homeless Services Coordinator Wayne Niederhauser shares Gov. Spencer Cox’s proposals for reducing homelessness to representatives from numerous faith groups and organizations gathered at the Capitol in Salt Lake City for Faith, Hunger and Homelessness Day to express support for legislative proposals that would reduce homelessness on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News