During the recent legislative session, lawmakers bypassed a couple of opportunities to help Utah's homeless, a population that may reach as high as 2,500 daily.
But they enthusiastically endorsed one opportunity to provide aid.The state income tax check-off for the homeless received broader support than almost any other legislation considered during the session, passing the House 58-6 and winning unanimous approval in the Senate.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Franklin C. Prante, D-Logan, establishes a special trust account for homeless persons in Utah.
Taxpayers can contribute $2 or more of their income tax refund checks by simply marking a box on the 1988 tax form.
The account, which will be administered by the State Homeless Coordinating Committee, will provide services and assistance in a variety of forms to Utah's most under-represented and underserved population.
Maun Alston, chairman of the committee, said no solid decisions have been made concerning use of funds that flow into the account.
"It isn't effective until the 1988 tax year," she said, "so we won't know if we even have money or how much until after April of 1989.
"Before then, the committee will have to decide on some priorities, discuss how to handle the account and seek proposals from service providers."
But the account is important, she said, because it is a continuation of the effort to find help for the homeless in the private sector.
The committee is already overseeing renovation of the old Westinghouse building as a new shelter facility, which should be open before next winter.
The vast majority of funding for the project has come through the efforts of volunteers and private individuals, as well as corporate donations.
State money for the homeless is almost non-existent: The departments of Health and Social Services have each budgeted about $12,000. And part of a one-time $150,000 grant to construct shelters throughout the state has helped.
But that's not much in a several-million-dollar project. And it will take $1.4 million more to complete the work.
If taxpayers take advantage of this opportunity to do something that is both meaningful and important, the options are exciting.
Stephen Holbrook, a member of the committee, said the money might be used to provide housing for the homeless mentally ill "who the state certainly ought to have an interest in."
The Division of Mental Health, he said, doesn't have enough staffing to supervise housing, so the money could be used there.
Money could also be used to great advantage operating existing programs, like St. Anne's in Ogden and Travelers' Aid in Salt Lake. Both organizations live hand to mouth and have to borrow and scrape to keep afloat.
Some of the money may be used to establish shelters in small, outlying areas that have homeless, but no place to put them.
Under the new law, no more than 80 percent of the funds can be allocated to organizations that provide services only in Salt Lake, Davis, Weber, and Utah counties, where most of the homeless are.
Alston told me that self-sufficiency, including occupational training and helping the homeless find jobs would probably be a priority. Special consideration will also be given to helping homeless substance abusers and those with handicaps.
The potential for good is exciting. The lawmakers took the first step by establishing such a fund. Now, it's up to the taxpayers to breathe life into the dream. All it will take is a mark on the tax form.
Unfortunately, tax form check-offs have achieved mixed results in the past.
The wildlife fund, now on the Utah tax form, was a mixed blessing. The amount contributed has dwindled each year, and it's impossible to project what will be contributed.
State funding for wildlife funds have allegedly dropped by about the same amount the check-off has brought in.
But that doesn't worry the committee. "The state's not really giving us anything, so whatever we get on the check-off will be a tremendous help," Alston said.
If you're discouraged by taxes next year, don't take it out on the check-offs. Homelessness could happen to almost anyone. And the solution can come from almost anyone, too.