Lawmakers Stand Behind Bill To Address Child Homelessness

Legislation designed to take a deeper look at child homelessness was unanimously passed out of the House Economic Development and Workforce Services Committee Tuesday.

HB 283 – Child Homelessness Prevention, sponsored by Representative Robert Spendlove (Republican – Sandy), adds addressing child homelessness to the duties of the Utah Intergenerational Welfare Reform Commission. The bill also provides that cash assistance available under the Family Employment Program can be used to reduce and prevent child homelessness.

Spendlove said there are 620 homeless children from 298 families in Utah. Over the course of a year, about five times that many Utah children will experience some form of homelessness. Studies have shown that, compared to children who aren’t homeless, homeless children are twice as likely to have learning disabilities and three times as likely to have an emotional disturbance. Half of homeless children are held back one grade, and 22 percent of homeless children are held back by multiple grades.

“In our intergenerational poverty work, we’re talking about children living in poverty, children affected by poverty, and children and families that are on welfare. What we want to do is we want to specifically be looking at the most egregious and the worst off of this group,” said Spendlove. “As we know, people living in poverty and families living in poverty are always on the verge of being homeless. This issue of homelessness, of family homelessness, and of child homelessness can really be pervasive. If we can really reach out and address this issue early on in a person’s life, the hope is that we can do much more to address the issue of intergenerational poverty.”

Bill Tibbitts, associate director of Crossroads Urban Center and director of the Coalition of Religious Communities, feels it makes a lot of sense to increase the focus on intergenerational and child homelessness. Tibbitts said he and others were inspired to think more about child homelessness after a story related last year during a bill presentation by House Majority Whip Francis Gibson (Republican – Mapleton).

Gibson was running a bill (HB 436 – Housing and Homeless Reform Initiative) aimed at improving homeless services and cited visits with homeless children at The Road Home’s Midvale Center as being one of the reasons that he was pushing the issue. “I think, for a lot of the people in our coalition, that got us to thinking about the first time we realized that there were homeless children. A lot of us work with homeless people, so you get used to that fact. But his highlighting that again and again made us realize that there are too many children in our state who are homeless,” said Tibbitts.

“It’s sort of an alliteration, but homelessness leads to helplessness and leads to hopelessness. Once a family gets hopeless, it’s really hard to get them back on course,” said Dr. Bill Cosgrove, representing the Utah chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Mike Harmon, homeless education liaison for the Salt Lake City School District, welcomes the prospect of reducing intergenerational and child homelessness. “Anything we can do to get more data to help look at how we can prevent that from happening, I would certainly encourage,” said Harmon.

Homeless advocate Pamela Atkinson believes HB 283 will give the state an opportunity to help prevent homelessness from happening in the first place. “We have wonderful sources of that information in our schools that is being underutilized. Teachers are so smart; they know when something is wrong with the child. If we can get the teams working together, we can intervene, visit with the family, and prevent the 30 percent mobility that’s going on and causing some changes of this homelessness,” said Atkinson. “I think the protection of our children — our most vulnerable children — is one of the most important things [the Legislature] addressing in this session.”

The bill will now be considered by the full House.

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