Housing, transportation and hunger are all issues members of the Heber Valley are familiar with, but one community foundation is working to tackle these issues head on.
The Wasatch Community Service Alliance chair Renee Burkley explains that the alliance is the service pillar of the Wasatch Community Foundation.
“We started studying the data of Wasatch County to identify the unmet needs and there were four that crept up. Hunger being #1, emergency housing being #2, affordable housing being #3 and public transportation being #4. The first thing we wanted to tackle was hunger. One out of five Utahns are hungry and that's typically a child. We have about 1,100 elementary school kids that are hungry every day we have about 111 middle school kids undetermined number of high school kids.”
Burkley has been speaking to local leadership through a presentation entitled "The Math Behind The Wasatch Back, Why are Families Struggling to Live Here." She says that they are working to fill in gaps for childhood hunger in Wasatch County.
“There’s a lot of families that are working two and three jobs kids are going home there's no food, so we need to bring the food to the kids. There was already a wonderful snack in backpack program going on with the elementary school kids who are eligible for free or reduced lunch, but that didn't service a middle school. It didn't service the high school. So, what we did was with community partners we opened up a pantry in Wasatch High School. Then we opened up food closets in both the middle schools. We are also getting food to the kids when school is not in session. We gave away 400 bags of food that covered two weeks of Christmas break. We also just gave out 650 nutrition packs to elementary schools over spring break. The next thing we're really looking at is summer break. We have a free summer lunch program that goes on just during summer school. We extended it by three weeks last year and now we want to have it all summer long so that's our next big challenge.”
Burkley says that there’s no answer for another huge issue in the county, that being emergency housing.
“For example, if a police officer finds a family who's living in a tent in the Walmart parking lot, they’ll call the transient Bishop and they may get one night in a hotel. That doesn't stabilize a family. A family needs a couple months that are taken care so that they can be hooked up with community resources. They can get a job, then get kids in school, they need daycare, if they need training, whatever they need to become self-reliant. I had the experience of working with a homeless family last summer and it was really a challenge to get them stabilized. We were able to get some money from a local church that would provide them rent for a room from a friend and that was just for one month. Affordable housing we only have two affordable housing units and they have a wait list of anywhere from six months to three years to get in. They turn families away all the time, in fact they've encouraged families to leave Wasatch County and go down to Provo where they are now becoming more creative and able to provide more affordable housing then we can.”
Burkley says that affordable housing issue is linked to wages.
“When you look at housing in Wasatch County the average home now cost $444,000. Who can afford that? They're not getting affordable wages. I mean the poverty wage in Wasatch County is like $14.14, 23% of the renters are making about $12. If a family has three children and one member is making $17.91 an hour there's still going to come up a little over $2,000 short a month just to live. So, what are people doing? Their bunking in with grandma and grandpa and they’re not driving a new car and they’re going to the food pantry for food and maybe they don't have the health care coverage that they need. We see these scenarios all the time.”
Burkley says that they’re doing they’ve had some success in tackling hunger and will continue to work to eradicate childhood hunger in the county. Burkley also says they’re hoping to develop an emergency fund to provide resources for those who become homeless.
“So, we’ve got some real challenges. My experience is working with the right community entities and with a community that cares you can tackle any of these problems.”