Groups advocate for future of homeless youth; a look at the numbers

ST. GEORGE — By the end of the 2016-17 school year, the Washington County School District had identified almost 1,200 students, grades pre-K to 12, who are considered homeless. It is a large number, and one that might surprise residents of a seemingly idyllic town.

Despite the daunting numbers, several groups, including a committee of existing organizations and a newly organized group called Youth Advocates of Southern Utah, have risen up to help find solutions and offer hope to the area’s homeless and transient youth population.

Homeless youth numbers

The McKinney-Vento Education of Homeless Children and Youth Assistance Act – a 1987 federal act – aids students living in homeless situations to enroll in school, Mike Carr, the school district’s homeless liaison and support services coordinator, said.

The act makes it easier for these students to gain access to school by providing immediate enrollment without having to provide documentation such as birth certificates, a home address or immunization records – documentation that they likely do not have access to, thereby otherwise preventing them from attending school.

Once they are enrolled Carr continues to help them work toward providing these documents, he said, and helping them get the immunizations they need.

Other services provided for by the McKinney-Vento act can include free breakfast and lunch and transportation to and from school.

The district likes to try to keep kids in the same school they were attending before they became homeless, Carr said, and sometimes transportation needs to be provided in order to accomplish that.

Though priority No. 1 for a homeless youth is their shelter and safety, homelessness has far reaching effects on their ability to concentrate and learn at school. Stability in the school environment is key to helping them stay there, Carr said.

According to the  McKinney-Vento report, students living with another family (co-housing), living in a hotel, living in a shelter or camping are all considered homeless in addition to students whose housing is considered inadequate and/or nonexistent.

The 2016-17 report provided by the Washington County School District shows that as of Oct. 4, 2016, with a pre-K to 12th grade enrollment of 31,138 students, 2.8 percent of the student population fell under the criteria to be considered homeless.

Once a student becomes homeless, Carr said, even if it is only for one day, they are kept on record throughout the school year.

A breakdown of the numbers shows that the majority of the identified students fall under the first category; that is, they, and/or they and their families are living with another family. While this might not seem so bad on the surface, Carr said, these living situations are often quite volatile even though they have their basic need for shelter taken care of.

Children living in a co-housing situation often have additional stressors placed on them because they rarely have space they can call their own. In extreme cases, they are living with families they don’t know that well.

The homeless situations deteriorate from there, Carr said, to the point that there is a group of youth considered unaccompanied or not living with their parent(s). Sometimes this can mean a child is living with a grandparent or other relative but other times they are hopping from couch to couch or out in the elements. It is this group of students that causes the greatest concern for the school district as well as for other groups who advocate for their safety and well-being.

Throughout the school year there were 97 students identified as unaccompanied on the McKinney-Vento report, most of them teenagers. This population is difficult to keep track of because of the transient nature of their living situations. By the end of the school year only 67 of those 97 students were counted, Carr said, leaving 30 students who either dropped out or moved away.

“That’s the group we’re concerned with,” Carr said, ” … those teenagers that become homeless and they really don’t have any place to go … these kids are really at risk, their safety is really at risk.”

Switchpoint Community Resource Center – the St. George area’s homeless shelter – is unable to help these unaccompanied teens because they don’t have a parent, Carr said. Outreach on a personal level becomes critical then.

Reaching out 

Alii “Bear” Alo is the founding member of a small outreach team whose job it is to go out into the streets and into schools, wherever youth frequent, and make connections with the homeless youth in order to guide them to the resources that are available depending on their situation.

The team is known as Team Raw, an acronym which stands for, “to educate and motivate the ready and willing,” Alo said. The group operates out of the Washington County Youth Crisis Center which falls under the Juvenile Justice System.

Alo and his team work to build relationships among the youth in hopes of helping them better themselves and their situations.

“A lot of that, first and foremost, starts with the relationship part,” Alo said, “because if they don’t trust me they’re not going to want to listen to what I have to help them.”

Where the school district’s numbers are in the thousands, Alo’s case load is approximately 40-50 of the most at-risk youth. These are youth who are in what Alo called “the hustle.”

These young teens are couch hopping, living in hotels, in homes where there is frequent drug abuse and on the streets. When you couple these situations with extreme weather conditions like Southern Utah’s heat, Alo said these youth won’t hesitate to seek shelter in an open garage or spend their days loitering in air conditioned stores or worse.

“A lot of these kids are trying to survive,” he said. “They’ve got to do what they need to do to survive. If they don’t have those basic resources, they’ll take from you.”

But, though many resources are available to help these youth, there is not a shelter designed specifically for youth where they can go to have a safe place to sleep, shower, do laundry and rest long enough to take advantage of the programs offered.

It doesn’t matter how many resources they have if, at the end of the day, these kids still have to go home, Alo said; home to unsafe situations or to no home at all.

Safe shelter overhead

Both Carr and Alo recognize that a dedicated youth shelter in Southern Utah is the missing element to being able to further help these youth.

To that end, within the last six months, several organizations have been seeking the ways and means to either build a shelter or create one in an existing space.

One such organization is the newly-formed Youth Advocates of Southern Utah. Under the helm of St. George resident and activist Randy Thomson, Youth Advocates of Southern Utah was created by community members to work immediately and with purpose toward creating a homeless shelter for youth ages 12-17.

Recognizing that outreach is of critical import to the cause, the organization has begun fundraising efforts and plans to create their own outreach street team to start building relationships and assess the needs of the homeless youth population, a news release from the organization said.

Thomson said he decided to act and create Youth Advocates of Southern Utah based on his personal experiences as an LGBT youth living alone in a suburb of Salt Lake City. While there he joined the Youth Leadership Council for the Utah Pride Center.

The Utah Pride Center acts as a drop-in center, providing hot food, survival aid, showers, social, civic and other resources for youth, Thomson said. He credits the center with saving him from his own demons as well as giving him a start in social advocacy.

Since that time, Thomson said, he has been involved with over a dozen nonprofit, social, policy and educational organizations, several of which were aimed at helping marginalized youth.

The board for Youth Advocates of Southern Utah is filled with community members who are likewise passionate about providing shelter and comfort to the youth homeless population and they are all actively engaged in working toward that goal.

To help facilitate the process, Thomson said the organization is applying for a Basic Center Program grant through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which is geared specifically for community-based programs that meet the needs of runaway and homeless youth under the age of 18.

“When we stand up for one another, when we educate and enlighten, when we care and support, when we stand together, and when we express our love for each other, we empower ourselves and others to be better beings,” Thomson said.

Another organization working toward the same end-goal is a yet-to-be-named coalition of groups in the area including among others: Carr with the school district, the Washington County Youth Crisis Center and Switchpoint Community Resource Center.

The groups have been meeting for several months to try and coordinate a plan to bring a youth shelter to St. George. In March, Carr invited a northern Utah-based group known as Youth Futures to present their experience and knowledge to the committee.

Youth Futures operates an established youth shelter home in Ogden that has housed over 120 homeless youths ages 12-18 since its opening in February 2015, co-founder Kristen Mitchell said.

After hearing the presentation, the committee asked Youth Futures to work with them in establishing a homeless youth home in the area, Mitchell said, adding that the Youth Futures board had already been considering a statewide expansion and had identified Washington County as the next big area lacking a homeless youth home.

The request from the committee was right on par with our plan,” Mitchell said. “Since we already had an operation up and running, the committee felt we had the experience needed to make a youth homeless shelter a reality for Southern Utah in the very near future.”

Youth Futures and the community organizations are still in the planning process and have not made a formal proposal about the project yet.

Both Mitchell and Carr said several things need to be taken into account, including securing a site and developing a more specific outline of costs, before presenting a plan to the community and potential donors. The groups hope to have that information available in the fall.

While both Youth Advocates of Southern Utah and Youth Futures have the same end goal, they are not, as of this time, working together, Thomson said.

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7 Comments

  • Proud Rebel June 27, 2017 at 10:02 am

    “While both Youth Advocates of Southern Utah and Youth Futures have the same end goal, they are not, as of this time, working together, Thomson said”
    So just why aren’t they working together? Could it be that they are more concerned about maintaining their own little fiefdom than they are in actually accomplishing something?

    • Bugbear July 15, 2017 at 7:06 am

      Youth Futures has been callous towards the other group. I think they want monopoly of the youth homeless program in Washington County or possibly because the grant can only go to one organization… Either way, they stated very clearly they have no interest in working with Youth Advocates. In researching both groups attempting to open a shelter here in Southern Utah, YASU was the only organization I felt was truly interested in helping the homeless youth in this area. They stated in the beginning they were willing to work with Youth Futures until it became apparent YF only had interest in becoming a barrier for YASU. Which is unfortunate because there are plenty of homeless youth in this community that need assistance for both organizations.

  • Brian June 27, 2017 at 2:19 pm

    It seems like counting people that are living with someone else as being “homeless” REALLY skews the numbers, and frankly feels dishonest. I get that it’s difficult (I lived with other people at least 6 times growing up) and know first hand the challenges it creates (it definitely impacted my education), but that is very different than living out of a car or under a bridge. And counting someone that is “homeless” for a single day in the stats for the whole year also really throws off the number.

    Why not have various categories (short term homeless, long term homeless, temporarily housed, etc) instead of just going for the most sensational number you can come up with? A friend that is a teacher recently said “we have over 1,000 students in our school district that are homeless”, and I thought “how can that be right?”. Turns out it wasn’t. If you want to get the public / taxpayer behind you on this, start by being honest to us about the actual scope and nature of the problem, otherwise we’ll just shutdown with “Great, more lies from the government! Now even closer to home…”.

    • Mike June 28, 2017 at 11:58 am

      The (Federal) McKinney-Vento Education of the Homeless Act “requires” each school district to report numbers for the following “specific” categories: Sharing a residence with one or more families due to loss of housing or economic hardship, living in a hotel/motel, living in a shelter (domestic violence, emergency, or transitional housing units), living in a place without adequate facilities (running water, heat, electricity), or seeking enrollment without an accompanying parent. The WCSD is compliant with the law. This school year we had 1,021 doubled up, and 142 in the other categories combined. We had 94 students who were unaccompanied. Of those 94 students, 30 dropped out or moved out of our district. That is our most “alarming” statistic. Where did they go?

      These sites will provide some history and facts about the McKinney-Vento law:
      http://nche.ed.gov/downloads/ehcy_profile.pdf
      http://nche.ed.gov/legis/mv.php

      Our largest category (Living with one or more families) is consistent with the numbers throughout the country. In fact, this category accounts for 88.7% of our total homeless population within the Washington County School District. I believe this number will continue to grow because of the few options for affordable housing and the lower wage jobs available in our county. According to the commercial real estate firm NAI Excel, vacancy for multifamily housing in St. George currently stands at less than 0.1%. In 2010, monthly rent for a two bedroom, two bath apartment was $690, which has risen to an average of $848 today. This forces even “working” families to share residences and rent with one another.

      In my experience over the past 3 years as the homeless liaison, I have witnessed students and their families go in and out of homelessness several times during the year. That is why a student who is homeless even one day is entitled to the benefits and rights under the McKinney-Vento Law. The whole reason for the law was to take away the barriers for students living in homelessness to be able to attend school on a regular basis and be successful. They also are eligible to have an advocate (the homeless liaison) to help with the student’s basic needs, birth certificates, immunizations, fee waivers, free breakfast and lunch, school supplies, clothing, and in some cases transportation to school.

      I invite anyone out there to visit the agencies and organizations that are dealing with the homeless population and families living in poverty on a daily basis and hear what they have to tell you, i.e. the DOVE Center, Switchpoint Community Resource Center, Department of Workforce Services, Southwest Behavioral Health Center, Doctors Volunteer Clinic, Family Healthcare Clinic, Southwest Utah Public Health Department, St. George Housing Authority, Five County Association of Government, Department of Child & Family Services, St. George Police Department, all local police departments, Washington County Sheriff’s & Attorney’s Departments, Children’s Justice Center, St. George Catholic Thrift Store, Deseret Industries, the Family Support Center, The Learning Center for Families, Salvation Army, Utah Food Bank, Grace Episcopal Church, Solomon Porch, Utah Foster Care Foundation, System of Care, Washington County Youth Crisis Center, TEAM RAW, Southwest Adult High School, Big Brothers Big Sisters, SUU Headstart, Paiute Indian Tribe, Vocational Rehabilitation, Intermountain Healthcare, the Interfaith Council, any church leader, Dixie State University, the United Effort Plan Trust (in Hildale), Cherish Families, etc. etc. etc. many, more.

      The Washington County School District alone has close to 45 schools with faculty, staff, administrators, and counselors that can “personally” tell you stories of their students living in poverty or homeless conditions. Live in our world for a day and you will realize we are not lying about the desperate needs for our homeless youth. We just realize that we (alone) CANNOT give them what they need. It is going to take as many people and groups of people to make things better.

      The great thing about America is that you have the right to criticize and complain or get involved, OR do nothing? It is up to you what you decide to do. 🙂

  • yikes June 27, 2017 at 9:04 pm

    If it takes stretching the numbers a bit to bring attention to this problem so they get the grant money and public support needed to build shelter & programs to help these kids then I say DO IT. I commend these people for their hard work to help these kids and ultimately build a stronger society.

  • Bear435 July 4, 2017 at 11:35 am

    You don’t need to explain WHY we do what we do Mike! I see you out here and you are appreciated! This goes back to the saying “if you’re not lighting any candles, don’t complain about being in the dark!!” We just keep moving forward brother! Happy 4th everybody!

  • jamesrwallace89 July 22, 2017 at 9:54 am

    Hi! My name is James Wallace, Executive Assistant of Youth Advocates of Southern Utah (YASU). I need to clarify any confusion that has risen concerning presumed disconnect between us and Youth Futures. Though we have similar goals and ideals, there are only so many available resources in Washington County. We are working closely together at this time under the mediation of other community leaders to properly distribute these resources so that we may work in tandem as separate entities, while providing each other support.

    Youth Futures is an established organization in Ogden, Utah, invited by community leaders to extend their program in Saint George. YASU has proposed a similar vision to Youth Futures, and we are currently implementing a plan of action that orchestrates the needs of both organizations and the communities youth. We welcome Youth Futures to Southern Utah.

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