Between 2017 and 2019, 461 children age 6 and younger received homeless services in Weber County, a new report by the Crossroads Urban Center found. The study on child homelessness is the first of its kind from the Salt Lake City-based nonprofit.
“Starting in 2017 we realized that there had been a surge of child homelessness in Salt Lake County and other areas in Utah,” said Associate Director Bill Tibbitts.
The report noted that 1,568 people from families with children took advantage of homeless services at some point from 2017 to 2019.
The organization teamed up with Utah Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Salt Lake City, to draft the Child Homelessness Prevention bill, which passed in 2017. One of the provisions of the bill is that the Utah Department of Workforce Services’ Intergenerational Welfare Reform Commission would be charged with analyzing and sharing data regarding intergenerational poverty in the state, focusing on information about children who are at risk of continuing the poverty cycle.
“We just haven’t felt that the state has produced enough information in response to that,” Tibbitts said. “We understand why they don’t have time to do this kind of analysis right now, so we did it ourselves.”
The report’s purpose, it says, is to focus on ways the homeless services system in Weber County can better stabilize homeless families with children.
“This year has been an exceptionally, and extraordinarily, hard year for homeless kids,” Tibbitts said in a presentation of the report. “We’ve had a pandemic that has made many families afraid to go to a shelter. ... That has in turn contributed to people staying in unsafe situations for longer than normal, so we’ve seen all around the state a surge in police calls about domestic violence incidents.”
He reasoned that if the county is better equipped to get families back on their feet, it will be much better prepared to help families face crises like the COVID-19 pandemic and mitigate the long-term needs of children who experience homelessness.
Among the listed ongoing effects of homelessness on children is lower academic performance. Citing the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, the report said students who experience homelessness at some point in their childhood are as much as nine times more likely to be held back in school for at least one grade. According to Tibbitts, the educational discrepancy between children who have experienced homelessness and those who have not has been exacerbated by the pandemic.
“We’ve had two school years disrupted,” he said. “This is a particular hardship for kids who are living in a shelter where they don’t necessarily have the best internet access and a quiet space where they can go and be with a tablet, if they are lucky enough to have a tablet.”
Spokesperson Lane Findlay said schools in the Weber School District have an average of four to six homeless students per school, with as many as 100 to 150 in the district at any given time. The resources available to them include waivers for student fees and school meal costs, as well as reimbursements for travel and other expenses.
The Crossroads Urban Center, however, wants to see bigger solutions. In the report, it recommends that school districts be vigilant in identifying and assisting children who have fallen behind due to homelessness and that Weber County produce 30 housing units for families who have experienced extended or repeated homelessness, create a housing affordability commission, enroll all families who currently are or have experienced homelessness in Medicaid and continue pandemic rental assistance programs.
The Weber Housing Authority, under which the oversight for many of these proposals would fall, could not be reached for comment.
The Rev. Kimal James from First United Methodist Church in Marriott-Slaterville spoke at the presentation of the report on her experience raising two adopted children who had experienced homelessness. Now adults, the children still struggle to lead successful lives, she said.
“While my husband and I and all of the community support we could gather around us did everything in our power to try to heal the trauma our children had suffered, the sad reality became apparent to us — that early life homelessness wires a child’s brain and shapes their perception of reality in negative ways that are very hard to change later on,” James said.
She spoke in support of the report’s recommendations, saying intervention from government agencies early on is the only way to stop the poverty cycle and prevent larger societal problems.
“It is a false hope to think that one day later on, these young people will be able magically to correct and heal on their own at a much lower cost to society,” James said. “Investments in corrective and systemic action on behalf of our homeless children is essential. It’s the moral and smart thing to do.”