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FREE PHONES AT CENTER HELP HOMELESS TEENS REACH OUT

Miche, 16, can't live at home anymore.

He's lived, instead, with friends or on the streets for the past two years, carving a niche at night in the shadow of Salt Lake's viaducts. There is no homeless shelter for youths or runaways.But Tuesday he and four of his homeless friends - other teens he met on the streets - gathered at Visions of Altitude to phone their families.

"It would be hard to go back into the cage," Miche said. "But I enjoy calling Mom. Sometimes we argue and fight, but I know she appreciates knowing I'm alive."

He has no intention of going home. For Chavez, 18, whose mother kicked him out last year, and Cody, 19, who has traveled too far, going home is not an option. Luka, 19, left because her father beat her and said she wouldn't dream of going back. But Star, 16, is going to go home. Her dad's coming to get her.

It began with a phone call.

This week, Tel America kicked off its phone-home program. Home-less youths at the Visions of Altitude day drop-in center can make long-distance phone calls as often as they like and talk as long as they like at no charge. The goal, said Tel America marketing director John Kennedy, is to let the youths get in touch with their families.

During a press conference, Salt Lake County Commissioner Randy Horiuchi lauded the phone program. But his strongest praise was for Visions of Altitude, a nonprofit agency that helps runaways and homeless youths hook up with services, find food, get cleaned up and make decisions about their lives.

"It provides one of the most important niches," Horiuchi said. "(Homeless youths) are one of the social services avenues we've really forgotten."

More than 130 youths have been in since the center opened in March at 655 S. State. As long as youths obey the rules - no drugs or alcohol, no weapons, no smoking, no foul language, no fighting and no gang colors - they are welcome to hang out and read, watch television or use the phone, said director Lara Lee.

Soon, she hopes the center will have showers so the young people can get cleaned up. They'll also be hooked up with medical services, food and other assistance. Visions hopes to help many of the young people get their GEDs and find work.

Life on the streets is not much fun, according to Cody. Asked what street kids need, he rattled off a list of basics: blankets, shoes, socks, underwear, clothes.