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Volunteers of America-Utah's homeless youth resource center inching closer to reality

SALT LAKE CITY — Volunteers of America-Utah's Homeless Youth Resource Center offers many of the basics.

It's a place to get something to eat, do some laundry, take a shower or pick up some new socks or other clothing. It's a place to help youths complete their education, find work and housing. It's a place where youths struggling with addiction, mental illness or other trauma to find help.

Equally important, the center is a place where homeless youths feel welcomed during a very vulnerable period of their lives.

John Crozier, 19, said the warm greeting he receives from staff and volunteers means a lot, particularly when he's having a rough day.

"They'll say, 'Good morning, John. How are you today?' That helps. Just saying 'hi' to someone can change the outcome of their day, just showing someone that respect," he said.

Crozier, who said he has been in foster care and has lived in group homes, is staying with the relative of a friend, but he occasionally spends nights hanging out in a fast-food restaurant that's open 24/7 or riding his longboard or skates through the night at a skate center.

He has applied for a housing voucher, but it is unclear how long that will take. For now, Crozier said he's grateful for the services he receives at the drop-in center, particularly the straightforward, candid relationship he has with his case manager.

"It provides a light," Crozier said about the center.

"Not everybody looks down on us. There are people who are willing to help us. It helps me because they treat me like I'm human."

The resource center, which serves homeless youths ages 15-24, has served a growing number of clients from its location at 655 S. State since opening its doors in 1996.

But the 5,000-square-foot building not only has become too small to accommodate youths, staff and volunteer efforts, the building is not suited for the full array of services that the volunteer organization has long wanted to provide, says Zach Bale, chief development officer.

Salt Lake City planners recently granted Volunteers a conditional-use permit that will allow it to offer round-the-clock services at its planned 20,000-square-foot homeless youth resource center at 888 S. 400 West.

For the first time, the nonprofit agency will be able to provide overnight shelter to up to 30 youths.

Constructing the new center and creating an operating reserve will cost about $6 million. Thus far, VOA has received commitments of about $5 million from the George S. and Dolores Dore Eccles Foundation, Larry H. and Gail Miller Family Foundation, Elizabeth (Beano) Solomon, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, McCarthey Family Foundation and the state of Utah.

VOA-Utah is now conducting a community campaign to raise the remaining funds to construct the building and develop enhanced programming for clients.

The “Home for the Holidays” campaign also serves an educational purpose, informing the community about VOA and the services it provides, Bale said.

As part of the campaign, VOA-Utah is approaching high schools to ask their help with the fundraising.

"It's youth helping youth," Bale said.

According to the state's Comprehensive Report on Homelessness for 2014, youths ages 18 to 24 make up 6.7 percent of Utah's homeless population. This was the first year the annual census of homeless people in Utah specifically counted this segment, but VOA's data suggest numbers of homeless youths in Utah are on the upswing.

Bale said VOA officials visited "some of the bigger and better youth centers" in San Francisco, Seattle, Washington, D.C., Minnesota and Arizona to guide service planning and the physical design of its new center.

In every case, centers that provide shelters convert common space for that purpose at night and break it down during the day.

This not only allows multiple uses for the space, it sends a psychological message that "this is not a destination," Bale said.

The goal of the center is help to guide youths into transitional housing or other settings where they are safe and successfully age into adulthood with proper supports.

Sixty-six percent of youths who completed their participation in case management transitioned into housing, according to VOA's statistics.

Bale said most of the square footage of the planned building is dedicated to case management, group activities and daily living functions such as laundry, dining and distribution of supplies such as food, clothing and toiletries to youths who use drop-in services.

VOA plans to provide some on-site job training, such as teaching computer programming or perhaps opening a coffee shop to be run by clients to teach them job skills.

Bale shared the architectural renderings and service plans Friday with Crozier, who said a the facility would be a welcome improvement on VOA's aging space on State Street.

While the existing resource center packs a lot of services into a small space, it can be difficult to find a quiet corner to collect one's thoughts before heading back out on the street when the center closes, let alone endure the wait for a washer and dryer, Crozier said.

Extra space "would definitely help. It does get a little crowded in here, especially at lunch time," he said.

As for the new programming, particularly the overnight shelter, Crozier offered his approval. VOA plans to break ground in March, Bale said.

"That would be awesome," Crozier said.

For more information about the “Home for the Holidays” campaign or to volunteer at the Homeless Youth Resource Center, call 801-363-9414.

Email: marjorie@deseretnews.com