Bill, initiative fuel open discussions on youth homelessness

Feb 24 2014 - 6:46am

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OGDEN -- Homeless youth are a population of Utahns fast becoming less invisible. Those watching an effort by a community activist, a non-profit agency, a Utah House member and the Standard-Examiner say the undertaking has brought youth homelessnes out of the shadows.

The Young and Homeless Initiative by the Standard-Examiner is raising funds, resources and awareness for the cause. A bill now before the Legislature is the latest development highlighting the issue.

Jennifer Larson, adolescent services program administrator for the state Department of Child and Family Services, said House Bill 132, which would increase the amount of time agencies have to help homeless youth away from their parents from eight hours to 48 hours, has created a surge in focus on the homeless youth population.

The bill maintains a requirement to notify parents after eight hours but keeps the youth from being turned over to legal authorities for an additional 40 hours.

The bill is sponsored by Rep. Gage Froerer, R-Huntsville, who has noticed widespread attitude changes in the last few weeks as he has been writing and promoting the bill. He and others believe such a law would help youth as they are allowed more help at a time when high emotions can lead to devastating life choices.

"It has brought to the forefront that issues like this should be dealt with on a local, community level," Froerer said of his bill. "We need to stop relying on the government for answers."

The bill was presented last week before the House Rules Committee. The House Economic Development and Workforce Services Committee is scheduled to hear it today.

Froerer said so far he has not experienced any opposition to the bill from either agencies or individuals.

"That's always a good sign," he said.

Froerer has worked with the Department of Child and Family Services and other agencies in the writing of the legislation, titled temporary homeless youth shelter amendments.

"My bill is just one small step. It will require the community to get involved both from an educational and resource level," he said.

"I think (the bill) has unintended consequences," said Larson of DCFS.

Larson said interest has spread from the Top of Utah to other parts of the state, including Salt Lake County. "There's been a sound push for fund-raising, in-kind donations and people wanting to help," she said.

But Larson said the new law, if passed, will ensure significant improvements too.

"If the agency has more time to develop a trusting relationship with the youth, then a foster care episode may be avoided," she said.

Some advocates say the youth would have a higher chance of returning home.

And if they don't return home, Larson said there is another benefit in the bill.

"This allows the youth to be involved in the process of placement," she said.

The Standard-Examiner Young and Homeless Initiative, which came about when an enthusiastic activist heard about an estimated 5,000 youths in Utah who are homeless and on their own, has gained traction already in 2014.

Laura Warburton, the Huntsville activist behind the growing effort, said publicity surrounding the issue has "changed the conversation" in Utah about homeless youth, opening the minds of those involved to possibilities never seen before, such as a homeless shelter in Weber County specifically geared toward youth.

And Marian Edmonds Allen, executive director of Ogden OUTreach and a partner in the effort, said there is no coincidence in the growing support and Warburton's efforts.

Calling Warburton a perfect storm, Allen said the activist has no fear about pushing for solutions.

"She is not afraid to talk to everyone and anybody," Allen said. "She's not afraid to ask those hard questions."

Allen said Warburton's enthusiasm has brought the discussion to a place the OUTreach executive director didn't see possible before now.

"I have been talking about homeless youth for years," Allen said. "People don't want to talk about it."

But Allen said Warburton has access to decision makers and community leaders that she has brought into the picture.

"She always says to me 'Who else can I talk to,'" Allen said. "She's not afraid to cast a wide net."

Included in Warburton's net has been the Volunteers of America.

Rob Wesemann, development director of homeless services for Volunteers of America, said Warburton and others have pressed his organization to make very preliminary plans for a shelter in Ogden.

Wesemann said his agency has more concrete plans for a youth homeless shelter to open in Salt Lake City in the next few years.

He said already Salt Lake City has efforts in place to help these youth that Ogden doesn't have resources to serve.

These include a shelter operated by Salt Lake County Youth Services and a Homeless Youth Resource Center where homeless youth may drop by in the daytime for meals and other resources.

"We just want to get them back on their feet so they can exit homelessness," Wesemann said.

He said Froerer's bill, if passed, will increase the ability of these agencies, including the future Volunteers of America shelter, to help these youth.

Wesemann said it is rare for populations of homeless youth to travel to Salt Lake City for help and that such efforts in the Top of Utah would not be a duplication in services.

Last week, organizers at Weber State University were discussing better ways to help LGBT (lesibian, gay, bisexual and transgender) youth who attend college to feel more at ease. The setting was an LGBT faculty and student affairs curriculum development retreat.

Statistics released by Utah State University indicate that as many as 40 percent of the homeless youth population become homeless because of issues associated with being LGBT.

Dr. Barry Gomberg, director of affirmative action/equal opportunity at Weber State, paused at the retreat to applaud the efforts of Froerer's bill and the Standard-Examiner Young and Homeless Initiative.

"It's powerful," he said of the initiative. "Partnerships with the Standard-Examiner will be incredibly helpful in changing attitudes toward those problems."

He said one of the biggest challenges LGBT communities face is invisibility and the initiative is bringing the problems into view.

The Standard-Examiner is donating $1 for every donation made online as part of the The Standard-Examiner Young and Homeless Initiative, up to $10,000. To donate, visit https://cares.standard.net/young-homeless/.

Contact reporter JaNae Francis at 801-625-4228 or jfrancis@standard.net. Follow her on Twitter at @JaNaeFrancisSE.

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