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.
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.
- Washington County School District McKinney-Vento report.
- Youth Advocates of Southern Utah.
- Youth Futures.
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