The future of homeless LGBT youth in Salt Lake City

Story and slideshow by RACHEL JACKSON

See inside the Homeless Youth Resource Center.

It’s just another Monday for the Volunteers of America Utah outreach team. Members spread out so they can cover more ground and find their target — homeless youth. The team members hop on TRAX, because that is a common place to find them. The next place they look is under overpasses or in parks. They just want to tell them that they have somewhere safe to go.

Volunteers of America is a national nonprofit organization, which was established in 1896 by social reformers Ballington and Maud Booth. A chapter is located in Salt Lake City that has various human services programs, including homeless resources, detoxification services and housing assistance.

A  survey done by Volunteers of America showed that approximately 41 percent of the youth they served in 2010-2011 identified as LGBT.

Although that number has varied slightly since the summer months, Zach Bale, vice president of external relations for Volunteers of America, said that a little more than one-third of the youth he sees are LGBT. The number is disproportionate when compared to the general population of LGBT in the Salt Lake City community, which is 6 to 9 percent.

According to both the Utah Pride Center and Equality Utah, an advocacy organization for LGBT Utahns, there are two central causes to youth homelessness: a lack of recognition and acceptance on both the personal family level and by society in general.

 

Recognition

Recognizing that homeless youth exist, and realizing that there are specific reasons why they end up homeless, is a crucial step for initiating changes.

According to the 2012 Comprehensive Report on Homelessness in Utah, released Nov. 8 by the Housing and Community Development Division, there was no representation of the LGBT community in both the adult and the teen categories. The survey included race, gender and age, but omitted sexual orientation.

This is one main reason why the state doesn’t know how many homeless people identify as LGBT. Awareness of LGBT homeless people on the state level would enable places like Volunteers of America to receive more funding.

“Awareness is half the battle,” Bale said. The homeless youth center on 655 S. State St., sees about 60 to 70 youth per day. In 2011, more than 1,000 youth were served at the center with basic needs such as accessing laundry services, food and hygienic resources.

The Volunteers of America Homeless Youth Resource Center accepts a small portion of funding on the federal and state level, but the majority of funding comes from local and private donations.

In 2011, Volunteers of America joined advocacy work with Equality Utah. The advocacy work was for the emancipation bill, which allows teens who are 16 and older to make legal decisions for themselves. And for many homeless youth this is a necessity.

 

Acceptance 

Lack of acceptance is another reason why teens end up on the street.

“We see a high level of family rejection at TINT,” said Danielle Watters, director of community support and wellness services at the Utah Pride Center. “If they were accepted it wouldn’t be such a big issue.”

Utah Pride Center houses TINT, the other downtown youth resource center in Salt Lake City where youth can come to access basic needs.

Utah has the highest population of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) in the nation — 62.2 percent of the total population.

In a January 2012 Pew Research study on Mormons in America, 65 percent of U.S. Mormons reported that being LGBT should be discouraged by society.

Eliana Birdsall, 20, said, “I have been homeless on and off for about 5 years. It was just easier to be homeless than to have to deal with all of it.”

Birdsall’s mother has been into heavy drug usage for most of her daughter’s childhood. Birdsall feels she has no one to turn to, because the rest of her family members are LDS. She is bisexual and is afraid to tell them. Her aunt came out to her family as a lesbian and they refused to speak with her for several months.

Birdsall uses the homeless youth center almost every day.

Brandie Balken, executive director of Equality Utah, said, “When we look at our homeless youth, they are almost 50 percent [LGBT]. There is an obvious misrepresentation of our LGBT kids who are in our homeless youth population.”

Balken said that one of the reasons why these kids end up on the street is because they do not fit in with their biological families due to a lack of acceptance. The kids then look for a place they can be acknowledged for who they are, and the sexual orientation they identify with. They are either placed with a foster family through the state or they end up roaming the streets in search of shelter.

 

What is being done?

Volunteers of America also has a homeless outreach program where staff and volunteers search for individuals and families experiencing homelessness. Outreach workers supply people with basic necessities such as food, clothing and other survival material.

“We hop on TRAX, and seek out youth,” Bale said. “The outreach workers find youth and let them know that they don’t need to stay on the street.”

Meals are prepared three times a day at the center, often by volunteers who have purchased the food.

To further help youth, Volunteers of America Utah has partnered with the Utah Pride Center. Each now refers clients to the other organization if staff feel people would be better served or feel more comfortable at the other facility.

Volunteers of America also works with the Fourth Street Clinic. Youth are referred to the clinic when they are in need of medical care. This clinic allows uninsured and homeless individuals the opportunity to become healthy so they can work toward getting back into secure housing.

“We’ve been seeing a lot of kids with kids lately,” Bale said. So the center has had to acquire supplies to help teen mothers in need. The Fourth Street Clinic gives homeless pregnant girls or women the prenatal care they need to give their baby a chance at a healthy life.

 

What still needs to be done? 

“In an ideal world we wouldn’t have anyone to help, but that’s not the case,” Bale said.

The Homeless Youth Resource Center is looking to expand. Bale said Volunteers of America is searching for a parcel of land that is big enough to construct a building from scratch and incorporate all of the plans for the future.

“We don’t provide shelter,” Bale said. “We want to be able to open an emergency shelter with about 30 beds for youth to sleep in.”

Bale and a group of other staff with Volunteers of America Utah went to various U.S. cities such as San Francisco and Seattle to study and learn from larger cities’ youth resource centers. They found that several cities offer homeless youth employment training and specific skills required to get a job.

Volunteers of America Utah hopes to offer something similar to help homeless youth get off the streets and transition into confident, self-sufficient adult lives.

Transitional housing is another project that Volunteers of America is currently working on. The existing building was scheduled to be remodeled, but on Sept. 16, 2012, an accidental electrical fire destroyed the roof and most of the top floor of the building located at 556 S. 500 East in Salt Lake City.

Two organizations, including the B. W. Bastian Foundation, have donated $50,000 each to support the project. Individuals will be able to live in the Transitional Home for Young Men until they get a job and are capable of supporting themselves.

Bastian said in a 2011 press release, “The fact that over 40% of the homeless youth are on the street because they are ‘not straight’ sickens me. I believe the LGBTQ community owes it to these kids to show them there is love for them. We also need to educate the parents and families of these kids to the truth so that fewer and fewer of these kids end up homeless.”