OGDEN — As soon as Zoey and Layla came back from school, the first thing they wanted to do was play in the playground.
The sisters, 5 and 7 years old, have been at Lantern House for a little over a week. After playing for about 10 minutes, the girls went inside the homeless shelter with their stepmother, and then to their family room.
“Oh, look! Let me see that! That’s my boss!” Nataya Rascon, 23, said to Layla with a mix of excitement and anxiety.
Rascon was in the middle of filing an job application while making sure Zoey and Layla were not misbehaving in the small room she shares with one more family.
This is not the first time Zoey and Layla are sleeping in the homeless shelter.
They were at the shelter with their dad a couple of months ago, Rascon told the Standard-Examiner. Then, they stabilized and went back to a family member’s home.
Things didn’t work out there, and that’s why they are back at the shelter on the second week of school.
Zoey and Layla’s story is not unique in homeless shelters across the state, and it’s definitely not unique at Lantern House.
According to numbers provided by the homeless shelter, on the week of Aug. 19 there were 88 minors in the shelter — a record high. In this shelter, minors are always accompanied by family members.
As of Wednesday, 86 minors, including Zoey and Layla, remained there.
Lauren Navidomskis, Lantern House development director, told the Standard-Examiner that is it not atypical to see a spike in minors coming into the shelter during the summer months.
“We do see a higher trend during this time,” Navidomskis said. “Landlords are more willing to say ‘It’s time to leave,’ to a family when it’s warm, before when it’s winter.”
But they’ve never had 88 kids in the shelter before, she said, and it is unclear the specific reasons why more families are showing up to Lantern House.
Operation Rio Grande, a statewide initiative rolled out last year to tackle crime and homelessness in the Rio Grande area in Salt Lake City, however, could be a factor.
“We do see individuals that are coming from all over the state that may be a reflection of the services, but we do see a higher percentage of clients, families specific during this time,” Navidomski said.
So, how is Lantern House dealing with so many minors and families?
They are doing what they can, with the resources they have.
Out of the 86 kids currently in the shelter, 45 are in elementary school, six in junior high school and seven in high school. The other 28 kids are under the age of 5.
This year, there are about 350 students in the Ogden School District designated as homeless students. Additionally, 180 homes of students in the district are being evaluated.
Jay Stretch, Lantern House executive director, said the shelter has partnerships with different community organizations, such as Youth Impact, that provide resources to the minors.
However, he recognized there are some challenges due to the financial situation the shelter faces.
“We are having some financial problems that are leftovers,” Stretch said. “One of our biggest problems is we rely to the tune of pretty close to $700,000 a year in donations from foundations and across individuals.”
Stretch, who was appointed after Jennifer Canter retired, said last year the donations from individuals were down $80,000.
“That hurts,” Stretch said. “We are hurting.”
The reasons why donations from individuals have decreased is unknown, although Stretch said the new tax laws and the “negative” media coverage on Operation Rio Grande and homeless shelters might contribute, Stretch said.
The shelter is running and serving as many people as possible, but it needs money to also implement in-house programs for the youth.
Most of the kids that stay at Lantern House go to schools within the boundaries of Ogden School District, such as Odyssey Elementary School, Mount Ogden Junior High School and Ogden High School.
During the summertime, the shelter serves kids three meals a day, and on Mondays it screens movies and serves ice cream, to help kids feel more at home.
“Right now, we have twice as many children in this shelter as we housed last night for the nightly clients — for the people that we think the typical homeless are,” Stretch said. “They are in families. Some of them are dysfunctional and they may or may not be able to get out of it, but a lot of them and a lot of our single males and females are very functional people that sometimes just fall on hard times.”
Frankie Trujillo, 21, and Ashley Tree, 25, arrived at the shelter one night after having issues with family members they were staying with.
The couple brought their 3-year-old kid. Tree is also pregnant.
The three of them are now sharing a room at Lantern House with Rascon, her husband and the two girls.
“At first it was pretty stressful, just to have to come to one of these places but it’s not too bad,” Trujillo said. “The people are pretty decent, the people that are in our room are really cool and nice, staff are pretty chill.”
Trujillo said that, although he was resistant to come to a shelter, he recognizes how much the staff will help him get a job, his Social Security card after he lost it and find day care for the boy.
Navidomskis said that in order to keep providing services and helping others, they need the help of the community.
Those interested in volunteering or donating money can do so through the Lantern House’s website.
“We have the appropriate resource to decrease that number over time but, with this new trend, I wouldn’t be surprised if it kind of stays steady for a little bit,” Navidomskis said. “With the resources and the housing market, people are falling into homelessness quicker than we can get them out.”