Throughout the Old and New Testaments, we are reminded that care for the poor is one of our primary responsibilities as Catholics. Thankfully, the 2023 legislative session advanced our cause in several ways.
First, legislators once again guaranteed $50 million for desperately needed deeply affordable housing. Last year’s appropriation of $55 million resulted in more than $160 million in funding requests for projects. The developments selected are expected to add 1,078 new housing units statewide. Current need is more than 4,000 units per year in Salt Lake County alone, but with this year’s allocation the state is at least showing its willingness to try to address the longstanding shortage of housing for individuals living on minimum wages.
Second, after another harsh winter, particularly for individuals experiencing homelessness, HB 499 Homeless Services Amendments improved the process for selecting winter overflow shelters and eased the ability of the state to select sites if cities are unwilling or unable to do so. The bill also added a Code Blue option for extreme cold, which relies on community organizations such as churches to open their doors overnight so people can stay warm when nighttime temperatures drop to 15 degrees or below. Code Blue, done correctly, is a life-saving practice. Just a note, however, that practices such as burning open flames in tents or using propane heaters in tents when temperatures are below freezing create substantial risks. Providing Code Blue shelter must be done in ways that do not create unsafe conditions.
Addressing homelessness is a critical need across our state. Efforts to house those who are living on city streets or in emergency shelters show our willingness to heed God’s call to care for the poor. Part of that work includes addressing the barriers to accessing and staying housed in the first placed.
Legislators took some steps toward prevention of homelessness this session, although that may not have been the initial intent. For example, in HB 60 Juvenile Justice Modifications, legislators added an expungement process for juvenile crimes similar to the automatic process already in place for adults. Legislators also cleaned up the adult process in SB 293 Expungement Revisions to ensure individuals are not stuck with a criminal record because they received a citation for something minor during the waiting period for an automatic expungement, among other things. Easing the process to erase criminal records makes it much more likely that an individual who made a past mistake while young is able to pass background checks for housing and employment as an adult, helping them stay housed and employed.
On the other hand, legislators lost sight of the bigger picture with other bills. HB 243 Public Transit Authority Collective Bargaining Amendments removes the ability of some Utah Transit Authority supervisors to engage in collective bargaining, meaning they can’t join the relevant union. Meanwhile, legislators also continue to adamantly oppose raising the state’s $7.25 minimum wage, no matter how high rents rise from year to year. Union jobs offer good pay and benefits, the kind of skilled jobs that help people provide a safe and stable home life for their families and for which unions also provide the training for anyone willing to work hard and learn. Undermining unions does little more than harm hard-working individuals who are making living wages and receiving the health and other benefits necessary to protect the dignity of life, while providing much-needed services for the rest of us. If legislators don’t want to continue funding affordable housing long term, they should encourage collective bargaining and unions.
As with any legislative session, there were clear high and low points. This year’s continued legislative commitment to deeply affordable housing and services for the homeless is a definite high point. Catholics across the state are encouraged to check their legislators’ voting records on deeply affordable housing and homelessness and reach out to share our strong support of care for the poor throughout the year.
Jean Hill is the former director of the Diocese of Salt Lake City’s Office of Life, Justice and Peace. She now works on initiatives to improve outcomes for individuals in criminal justice and homeless services systems.