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Homeless Youth in Utah

Samantha Watts, Staff Writer

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During the bitter cold winter’s arrival in Utah, everyone with resources to keep warm is especially thankful for what they have. However, not everyone has a safe, heated home this holiday season. In 2014, over 13,000 people were reported homeless, making up .47% of the state’s population. Homelessness in Utah–specifically in larger cities such as Salt Lake City–is a problem for a huge chunk of its residents. Arguably even worse than being an adult homeless person is being a homeless youth. Each year, anywhere from 900 to 5,000 youth will have an experience with being homeless. Some of these children will run away from home, others run from foster care or foster care centers, and others are ejected from their homes by their families. Youths’ struggles with homelessness are so severe that 32% of teens without homes are expected to attempt to commit suicide, and a large portion of them will fall victim to human trafficking within 48 hours of losing their home. These numbers are a real problem, as they show that homelessness might be one of the most terrifying and disturbing threats to the teenagers in Utah. And that’s not even the worst of it–an average of 30% of homeless youth identify as LGBT+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, etc). Young adults are being banished from or forced to run from their homes due to parents who are anti-LGBT and so make the child feel unsafe or do not want the child in their home. LGBT teens are in serious danger of losing their homes and falling victim to the many dangers of being a homeless youth in the freezing winter weather.

Marian Edmonds works at OUTreach Resource Center, a facility that aids young homeless people, specifically those who are Mormon and LGBT. In an article for a website called NoMoreStrangers, Edmonds writes that while we know there are many homeless youth here in Utah, we’ll never truly know how many there are:

“There are over 1,300 homeless youth at last count, but the count isn’t accurate because the majority of homeless youth are too afraid to be counted, who stay away from shelters for fear of assault or worse, who don’t ever talk to adults because they have been exploited once, or maybe many times.”

In fact, many youths will become a victim of human trafficking or sexual assault within only 48 hours of becoming homeless. This abuse, according to Edmonds, is a huge factor in why homeless teens won’t step forward: they’re afraid of what will happen to them if they do. Says Edmonds, “you don’t see them unless they trust you.”

A large factor in the population of homeless youth in Utah, specifically those who identify as LGBT, is the amount of Latter-day Saints Mormons that live in the state. The official LDS website states that “the Church’s doctrinal position is clear: Sexual activity should only occur between a man and a woman who are married.” This is taken to heart by many participants of the religion, and so when their child comes out of the closet, the response is not always positive. “The majority of the youth we work with identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender,” says Edmonds. “…Of those roughly 50% LGBT homeless youth, 60% report that they are from Latter-day Saint homes. At OUTreach, the vast majority of the youth we serve are from Mormon homes…” So, although the LDS church declares that their policy on same-sex attraction “should never be used as justification for unkindness,” there are LDS homes and families that won’t allow LGBT children in their homes. Edmonds says that “far too often the reason they are living on the streets, in a camp, car or couch is because their parent said to them, ‘Pack your backpack and be out before dawn. Come back when you have “straightened up” or don’t come back at all.’” In fact, according to the Williams Institute of Law, around 68% of homeless LGBT youths who are served in homeless shelters have experienced family rejection in the past.

Luckily, there are many facilities available to young people who are struggling with homelessness. One such facility is Volunteers of America Utah, a service that finds people in need and gives them shelter, food, water, and clothing. They’re slogan is “Helping America’s Most Vulnerable,” and they take that job very seriously. With over one hundred and fifty on-hand staff, they aid not only those who are homeless, but also those who are struggling with drug addiction, domestic violence, and mental health disorders. Along with their amazing amount of paid workers, they also receive the help of hundreds of unpaid volunteers every year. And these numbers are only what can be found in Utah–nationwide, they employ around 16,000 people each year who aid homeless youth across the country. And their only mission isn’t just to give homeless youth temporary food and shelter:

“At first, [we might] guide them to a shower, find a location to do laundry, or get some food… [but] we can do more than meet their basic needs.  We can assist them with getting identification.  Help them complete their education.  Seek employment.  Find housing.  And get them the mental health and addiction counseling they need.”

It’s the hope of Volunteers of America Utah that they can complete their mission: “…to reach and uplift those in greatest need and to provide opportunities to experience the joy of serving others.”

Struggles with family, depression, drug addiction, and lack of a safe place to turn can lead many teenagers to be forced into living their lives on the streets. Many dangers are involved in being a homeless teen, including a risk of sexual assault, human trafficking, abduction, and chance of suicide or other means of death. During this cold season, those of us who are fortunate enough to have a safe, warm home should not only be humble and gracious for our situations, but also be thinking about and giving back to those who are less fortunate than us.There are a number of ways that we can help those in these situations, including donating to various facilities that give homeless people a place to stay. If those of us who have more can give to people who have less, we can together make the world a safer place for scared, homeless teens.

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