Commentary: Time to show compassion for homeless families and children

God commands us to open our hands to the poor and needy in our land.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Millcreek will host a temporary overflow homeless shelter, as the former Calvin S. Smith Library at 810 E. 3300 South is prepared on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022, for this winter to keep unsheltered Utahns out of the cold.

Our community, the greater Salt Lake Metro area, has a long history and deep commitment to family. Compassionate service and a collaborative, solutions based focus on human thriving? Our record on this is strong here, too.

And, right now, we need our super powers of compassion and care to kick into gear. The situation on the ground right now for families experiencing homelessness is dire and we all know it. And we all care. Deeply.

As clergy we are deeply concerned about all our neighbors who are experiencing homelessness, especially now that the weather has turned cold. The rapid rise of the cost of housing and inflation has resulted in now three out of four Utahns are unable to afford a home. And this has pushed families on the margins into the streets.

Most families that lose their housing do so because of a gap of only $300 to $1,000. And the eviction system in Utah is among the harshest in the country. Trying to find housing following an eviction is more difficult than after filing for bankruptcy. The result is that babies and toddlers are sleeping outside right now.

In September, for the first time in decades, family shelters had to turn away families. A lot of families; 78, in fact. In October, 130 children were turned away from shelter. One child is too many in a state with the resources that we possess.

We are deeply aware that addressing the needs of our community members experiencing homelessness is complex, multi-faceted and collective. Systemic change takes time but a hungry or cold child does not have time to wait for systemic change. They need relief right now to survive the night.

We call us all in this community - ourselves and our respective faith communities, our community partners and our elected leadership - to find a solution quickly to the emergency need while we continue to build toward long term solutions. This is not about opening our hearts, it’s about opening our hands.

In the book of Deuteronomy, from the Jewish Testament, chapter 15 verse 11, there issues the following command from God.

“For there will never cease to be poor in the land; that is why I am commanding you to open wide your hand to your brother and to the poor and needy in your land.”

Sometimes, the long enduring nature of systemic poverty has led us to think it is impossible to solve or that the solution lies somewhere in the opening of the heart and unleashing of greater compassion. But this verse cancels those illusions and instead calls us to action. God sees right through our excuses and says - “hmm - I’m not as concerned about how those of you with a house feel about this - just go serve and house your neighbors without one.”

Even those of us who do not come to this with a faith-based conviction can see the simplicity of this command to just get to it. It’s a bold and bright command.

As clergy, we call ourselves and our whole community to respond. How we act, how we use our hands in this situation is what we are accountable for and how our measure of success as a community is measured. Human flourishing is our moral imperative and we are calling us all to action today.

There are identifiable solutions, resources and partners to address this crisis. In this season, a time set aside for many to remember our connections to a broader human story, our message, our ask and our hope is this: Come along. Come along and get into the mess with us as we work out our collective salvation-liberation-healing.

We are deeply connected to one another and we thrive together or not at all. This is no time for a partial peace. This is a time for an unleashing of faith, spiritual imagination and creative solutions such that all who call this beautiful valley home may do so safely and well this winter.

Rev. Lora Young, South Valley Unitarian Universalist Society. Rev. Steve Klemz, retired Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. Rev. David Nichols, Mt. Tabor Lutheran, ELCA. Rev. Tyler Marz, Community of Christ. Rev. Monica Dobbins, First Unitarian Universalist Society. Rev. Ian White Maher, First Unitarian Universalist Society. Rev. Brigette Weier, ELCA, community organizer, United Today Strong Tomorrow. Rev. Dr. Curtis Price, First Baptist Church of Salt Lake City. Rev. AJ Bush, First and Centenary United Methodist Church. Cantor Sharon Brown-Levy, Congregation Kol Ami of Salt Lake City. Rev. Brent Gundlah, senior pastor, Holladay United Church of Christ. Rev. Vinnetta Golphin-Wilkerson, pastor, Granger Community Christian Church.