Advocates called on state lawmakers to do more to protect Utah’s homeless population, urging more investment for affordable housing and putting an end to the state sales tax on food.
Bill Tibbitts, deputy executive director at Crossroads Urban Center, joined with several community organizers in an effort to bring more public awareness to the state’s homelessness problem, and asked members of the public to put pressure on lawmakers.
He said this could be a “historic session” for homelessness in Utah, and asked lawmakers to fund Gov. Spencer Cox’s budget proposal of around $150 million for housing and tax credits.
“We are here today because the Utah Legislature meets for 45 days. This is the third day,” Tibbitts said. “And during that time, will propose over 1,000 bills. … So they are at a restaurant with a menu that has thousands of options. … We’re here in the first week saying, ‘Hey, let’s make this the session where we get into the sales tax on food, move all the seniors out of the shelters and make sure that no kid has to sleep outside because there’s not going to be (room) in the shelters.'”
Although the food tax can seem like a small amount of money to some middle-income families, Rev. Vinnetta Golphin-Wilkerson of the Granger Community Christian Church said it can be a meaningful hurdle for low-income earners. She said lawmakers need to “end the tax on food now.”
“Families need this immediately and cannot wait for a future tax refund or credit,” she said.
Two bills have already been proposed to do just that. HB101, sponsored by Rep. Judy Weeks Rohner, R-West Valley City, would remove the state imposed tax on food and food ingredients, and HB172, sponsored by Rep. Rosemary Lesser, D-Ogden, would remove the tax on all food and food ingredients except candy.
Talks about eliminating the state food tax have continued since last year’s session, and Gov. Spencer Cox told Deseret News he’s open to nixing the food tax, as well as ending the constitutional earmark that allocates income tax revenue to the state’s education fund.
Golphin-Wilkerson said the state also needs to allocate more resources for affordable housing, citing the 2,441 total nights children spend in homeless shelters in Utah in 2022.
“The people of Utah are willing to accept as normal having these children in a shelter for 2,441 nights,” she said. “So until our good ideas, our good intentions, our positive and symbolic actions move that number to zero, I submit that there are two facts that need to be faced.”
Those facts, as Golphin-Wilkerson said, are that “we as a state must express the collective will to make safe, deeply affordable, supportive housing a reality for every child in our state without exception” and secondly, “we’ve got work to do.”
In addition to ending the food tax, the Coalition of Religious Communities and Crossroads Urban Center also asked the Legislature to support Cox’s proposal for an additional $800,000 to support food pantries. The governor’s budget also includes $100 million in one-time funds to help build 2,000 additional housing units, $19 million in ongoing funds for tax credits and housing trust fund funding, and $5 million in one-time funds to build 1,000 new affordable housing units over the next 10 years.
Tibbitts asked for $30 million to buy a motel to convert into a second family shelter, as well as buy property to develop permanent supportive housing for families. He said there was a 33% increase in the number of families with children who needed emergency shelter in 2022.
“That has meant that for the first time since 1988, we have seen families with kids turned away at the shelter,” he said. “That is a problem we haven’t had for a generation, and if we fund the solutions we’re talking about, we will solve this problem for the next 20 years — for the next generation.”