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Top Mormon leaders call caring for the homeless a defining moment

First Published      Last Updated Apr 13 2017 07:40 pm

For months, some of Utah's most powerful institutions — governments, business alliances, civic groups and more — have been discussing, debating, dickering, even dueling over the homelessness crisis gripping the Salt Lake Valley.

All the while, the state's most influential organization, the LDS Church, remained officially silent — until Thursday.

That's when the governing First Presidency of the Utah-based faith, in a five-paragraph, 350-word news release, described various causes of homelessness, including "conflict, poverty, mental illness, addiction or other sources" and declared that "our response to those in need defines us as individuals and communities."

The recent quest to find sites for new, smaller homeless resource centers has divided reluctant neighborhoods and prompted rancorous town hall meetings, complete with harsh words for government officials and even boos aimed at a homeless man.




While Mormon higher-ups did not weigh in on where the new shelters should be built, they did applaud community leaders' "continuing efforts to find solutions that will not only relieve the suffering inherent in homelessness but also implement measures that will help homeless individuals become self-reliant and deal with criminal elements that prey on the homeless."

They also vowed that the LDS Church would continue to be "in active discussions with community partners to identify where the greatest needs exist and how the church may offer additional help."

Bill Tibbitts, an advocate with the Crossroads Urban Center, cheered the church's statement.

The plan to build multiple resource centers is a "big change," Tibbitts said. "It is going to take a lot of people coming together to make this new approach work. It's a lot more constructive than just chasing the homeless out of town."

And the state's dominant religion has a role to play, he said. "Everybody has been counting on the LDS Church stepping up and being part of the solution, and now they are saying this is what they're going to do."

Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams also took the words from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a positive sign.

"This statement means a lot to people who are working to address these challenges," said McAdams, who believes Mormon leaders were intending to encourage the government process toward decentralized resource centers, instead of one large downtown homeless shelter.

McAdams has been involved in talks with LDS officials on how they can be involved.

"I would like them to consider, perhaps, contributions to the construction," he said, "and ongoing operations of the homeless resource centers."

The state is chipping in $27 million to construct three new centers — two in Salt Lake City and one in South Salt Lake — but McAdams said the county will be looking for private donations to support that effort. Businessman Pat King has already kicked in $4 million toward the construction of a resource center catering to women.

The First Presidency statement noted that the church, feeling "keenly a responsibility to help in a Christlike way," has donated "cash and commodities totaling more than $42 million to eight community and religious organizations that serve the homeless in Salt Lake City" in the past decade.

"We have partnered with government, relief organizations, community groups and other faiths to care for those in need and to help address the underlying causes of homelessness," the release said. "... There are dozens of partners that draw upon the church's food reserves at bishops' storehouses on a monthly basis. In addition, the church offers counseling services, employment training, job placement and personal ministering to the homeless."

The release noted that the church agreed to sell its Deseret Industries store, 131 E. 700 South, to Salt Lake City for use as a resource center.

It's not the LDS hierarchy alone that contributes to caring for the homeless.

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