Why the LDS Church says its Utah meetinghouses don’t double as homeless shelters

The state’s largest faith, like most denominations, reserves these buildings for worship. Instead, it provides millions of dollars in aid and supports hundreds of organizations as a major player in helping the unsheltered community.

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sacrament meeting ends after a Latter-day Saint service for the homeless at what was then called the Rio Grande Branch in Salt Lake City in 2017. The congregation, now called the Fayette Branch, is one of many ways the church helps unsheltered Utahns.

Ty Bellamy is hardly alone when she wonders aloud why Utah’s predominant faith doesn’t just open its abundant meetinghouses as overnight shelters to house unsheltered individuals.

“They could solve homelessness in the United States by themselves,” said the longtime advocate for those living on the streets, “and it wouldn’t even dent their pockets.”

Although at least a couple of area churches have turned their places of worship into part-time shelters in recent years, it’s rare for them to do so.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is no different.

“The church is fully engaged in assisting those in need of shelter, in Salt Lake City as well as around the world. Those needs are immense” church spokesperson Doug Andersen stated. “Utilizing our chapels for this purpose is unrealistic as they are places of worship primarily. However, fortunately there are other options available through an interconnected community-based system — of which the church is a part — which makes available resources for those needing a place to live.”

The church, one of Utah’s wealthiest and most influential institutions, ranks as a major player in the fight against homelessness in the Beehive State. And there’s a reason you may not know how the faith’s leaders are dealing with the growing crisis.

Rick Foster, an area welfare and self-reliance manager, said the church has typically shied away from taking credit for its efforts to help homeless individuals, but that is starting to change.

“We recognize that there’s this stigma that, ‘Well, where’s The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?’” Foster said. “And the reality is that there is no nonprofit in this state, no major nonprofit in this state, that we aren’t propping up and helping.”

Most of the work that Utah’s predominant religion does to help the unhoused falls outside of offering direct services to avoid duplicating efforts or competing with organizations that are already providing aid.

Instead, the church uses its deep pockets to support the troops already on the front lines of combating homelessness.

Vast funds and a wide reach

(Rachel Rydalch | The Salt Lake Tribune) Pamela Atkinson during a tour of Pamela’s Place apartments, an affordable housing development in Salt Lake City for Utahns experiencing homelessness, in February 2022. The beds in each unit at Pamela’s Place were donated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In 2022, the church spent more than $1 billion worldwide on humanitarian assistance, boosting its global aid from the year before. Within the state, Foster said, the Salt Lake City-based faith has kicked in north of $100 million in aid.

Those expenses covered a swath of services, including help for the unsheltered and to prevent homelessness in the first place.

Last year, the church teamed up with more than 650 agencies and organizations in Utah, Foster said, making financial contributions that ranged from a few hundred dollars to several million. Those donations, he noted, can be used more flexibly than money that comes from the government.

“It’s wide, it’s vast,” Foster said of the faith’s homelessness response. “Anyone that says that the … The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints isn’t doing enough, I say that it’s simply a statement made in ignorance.”

On top of making regular contributions, church representatives are fixtures on boards and committees, representing the faith in nonprofits such as Shelter the Homeless and The Road Home.

Foster said the church is plugged into social service networks in every major city in the United States and Canada. In Utah, he said, Latter-day Saint officials work directly with Gov. Spencer Cox’s office.

Wayne Niederhauser, the state’s homelessness coordinator, said the church was a crucial contributor to the homeless resource centers, a major provider of commodities to the homeless services system, and a reliable support system for those who are on the edge.

“They’re a big part of us preventing homelessness,” Niederhauser said. “They play a vital role in that.”

More than food and clothing

Much of that work in preventing homelessness happens at the congregational level, where lay Latter-day Saint bishops give assistance, primarily to members in need.

Those grassroots clergymen can connect those in need with mentors or mental health providers, supply food, and help with common expenses to free up money for other costs, such as rent and medical bills.

This aid, Foster said, tops tens of millions of dollars in Utah alone.

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) John Montgomery, right, speaks with Gary Page during Latter-day Saint service for the homeless at what was called the Rio Grande Branch in 2017. The congregation, now called the Fayette Branch, is one of many ways the church helps unsheltered Utahns.

And for those who are in the shelter system or living on the streets, the church’s Fayette Branch provides spiritual support. Everyone is welcome to worship with this Latter-day Saint congregation at 1000 S. Main, Suite 103.

The branch also helps congregants connect with services found at the church’s Welfare Square complex near 800 South and 800 West.

Welfare Square is not only a place for accessing basic needs like food, clothing and transportation. It’s also a place where those who need help getting on their feet can take the first steps toward self-reliance.

And that help comes with no religious strings attached. Come as you are. Get the help you need.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Greg Young, general manager of transitional services The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, gives a hygiene kit to Anthony Spidle at Welfare Square on Friday, March 10, 2023.

Greg Young, the church’s general manager of transitional services, oversees Welfare Square and similar operations in Ogden, Logan, Provo, St. George and Cedar City (the church is also looking to open a center in Brigham City). Out-of-state services are available in Las Vegas and Mesa, Ariz.

Young’s duties are expansive, but he’s quick to tout his largest role: training missionaries to serve the poor and needy as Christ would.

“We want to be kind and loving,” Young said, “and find out any way that we can to get them the long-term solutions that they need to get out of the rut that they’re in.”

The work of the missionaries, Young said, is about more than connecting those in crisis with basic needs. It’s about being there to hear from those who are struggling.

“They need that,” he said. “They need that one-on-one attention and that friendship that a lot of them don’t have.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dwayne Johnson, a missionary with the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Transitional Services, visits with Anthony Spidle, at Welfare Square, on Friday, March 10, 2023.

If they’re ready and willing, Young said, the church will help them tackle addiction or break the cycle of generational poverty by linking them to services.

And if they’re not ready, Young said, the church will be there as they take tiny steps toward self-reliance.

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) A man experiencing homelessness arrives at a Latter-day Saint services at what was then called the Rio Grande Branch in Salt Lake City in 2017. The congregation, now called the Fayette Branch, is one of many ways the church helps unsheltered Utahns.

Bellamy, the advocate for the unsheltered in Salt Lake City, works with Young to provide food and clothing to those who live in encampments.

The partnership ensures those on the streets have access to extra blankets or tents that may have been stolen or thrown away. It also gives the unhoused a chance to talk to Young about job opportunities (the church offers positions at its Deseret Industries thrift stores).

“For some people, it starts to bridge that gap between the LDS Church and the unsheltered community,” Bellamy said, “which is desperately needed.”

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