Homeless girl graduates from Ben Lomond

Sunday , July 20, 2014 - 11:00 PM

OGDEN – For 20-year-old Charline Gee, being able to say she is employed, paying rent and staying away from harmful substances brings much sense of accomplishment.

Gee, the daughter of a chronically homeless couple, appears to have broken free from her parents’ example.

“My parents were not being parents,” she said. "They were homeless. ... They moved to California. They kind of abandoned me."

Gee was left with a sister but she said that arrangement went sour when she didn’t want to follow the rules.

“I had been kicked out of my sister’s house. I was hitting rock bottom,” Gee said. “As much as I didn’t want to, I had to come here (to St. Anne’s Center).”

But even in that predicament, the young woman became the first in her family to graduate from high school without first becoming a parent. And she looks back at that graduation day thrilled with the growth she sees in herself since then.

In the spring of 2011, staff at St. Anne’s Center were elated to watch Gee walk across the graduation stage at Ben Lomond High School. She was the first to graduate from high school while living at the center on her own.

She made it through her last half year of school while working full time and riding her bike to and from school, work and the shelter.

“I learned how to be independent, live on my own and not depend on others,” Gee said.

Gee was just one of what experts say is a startling number of young people in Utah who have found themselves with no place to call home.

Fortunately for Gee, when she became homeless, she was close enough to turning 18 that her birthday came before officials at St. Anne’s Center could verify her age.

St. Anne’s Center Executive Director Jennifer Canter said 16 and 17-year-olds run away from home often because of abuse and then they stay away from St. Anne’s Center because they know staff there would have to call the police after just eight hours because they are juveniles.

“They are just kind of lost out there in the shadows,” Canter said, noting that she can only help children that age if a parent tells her staff that they are abandoning their child.

“It’s a real difficult situation,” Canter said. “To avoid the police, they just live on the streets.”

Now, the law is changing to allow center officials up to 48 hours to help them before calling police and Canter believes this extra time is a start in the right direction.

“If we can actually get them and they can stay here, we can make a difference,” Canter said.

Canter would like to have more success stories like Gee’s. But she said helping young people, even if they are older than 18, is difficult because of the backgrounds of many of the other clients at the center.

“Probably 20 percent of our population are past felons,” Canter said. “Some of them are sex offenders.”

She said the new Lantern House Homeless Shelter, when it’s finished, will help staff serve this population better because they’ll be able to separate the younger crowd into a different area.

Canter said she does her best to keep younger people separated now but she can’t help once they walk out the door together with the other folks who stay there.

Canter said giving young people jobs like house mother where they clean the dorms and are allowed to stay in the center during the day helps to separate them from questionable characters outside.

And she said Gee’s story is one where everyone's efforts paid off.

“She could have gone either way,” Canter said of Gee. “The staff really took her under their wings.”

Gee said she’s amazed at the change she sees in herself.

“I wanted to grow up a little too fast,” she said. “I didn’t want to follow the rules. I was still a kid, thinking I had more priorities. It kind of got bad before it got better.”

And Gee admits many of her problems were brought on by herself.

“Now that I think about it, I am glad that it happened,” she said. “It made me who I am. ... I feel grateful because I am a different person. It has humbled me.”

You may reach JaNae Francis at 801-625-4228. Follow her on Twitter at JaNaeFrancisSE. Like her Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/SEJaNaeFrancis.

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