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Ground to be broken Thursday afternoon for 24/7 homeless youth resource center with 30 shelter beds

SALT LAKE CITY — For Codi Gregg, home is the makeshift shelter he has fashioned from twigs, branches and other natural materials he collects in the foothills.

Gregg, 19, said he has been homeless since the first of the year. Camping, he says, is a better alternative to living with homeless adults at downtown homeless shelters. But it also means a two-hour hike — each way — from his camp to Volunteers of America Utah's homeless youth resource center on State Street.

The center, which is open limited hours, has provided him sleeping bags, tarps and canned goods. Occasionally, Gregg eats hot meals there, and checks in with staff and other homeless youth.

"I don't think I would have lasted very long at all without VOA," he said.

While staff and volunteers have labored to provide day services from the State Street storefront Volunteers of America has operated since 1999, they acknowledge the facility is inadequate and doesn't meet the needs of homeless Utahns ages 15-22.

That's about to change. Thursday afternoon, officials, donors and friends of Volunteers of America will break ground for the Homeless Youth Resource Center, 888 S. 400 West.

The center, which will include a 30-bed shelter, will be open 24/7. Three meals will be provided daily in addition to housing assistance, education support, employment services and access to legal help.

“This new center will allow us to separate the youth from the homeless adult population, which is essential to gaining their trust and providing the services they need to secure jobs and housing, prevent or address addiction issues, and ensure they don’t become homeless adults," said Zach Bale, Volunteers of America's chief development officer.

The new center will be four times larger than the existing facility. Construction of the facility should be completed in spring of 2016.

Rob Wesemann, Volunteers of America Utah's division director of homeless services, said the nonprofit agency, as part of the larger, ongoing community discussion about homeless services, has talked to service providers across the country about best practices in shelters and programs for youths.

"We're excited because we know the center that we are building is going to be the right size. We know we'll be able to serve the right number of youth. The other piece is we know we won't have to ask them to leave and then cross our fingers that they come back the next day," Wesemann said.

To best meet the needs of youths, centers need to be as "low barrier" as possible, he said.

"That's part of the challenge here. There's inherent barriers. We're closed part of the time. We have open access part of the time because we want to have some directed services, which we've had pretty good success with, in assisting folks filling out job applications. If nothing else, it's giving them a little bit of time to sort out some things out. We do have a lot of clients working or they're close to it, so that's good," Wesemann said.

Having a round-the-clock model not only will help clients and keep them safe, but youths will not be turned out into the community in large groups when services close for the day, as they are now.

"We have to balance the barriers with the open access. We feel like we're going to be able to do a much better job of that," Wesemann said.

Nick Larkin, 20, said he visits Volunteers of America's homeless resource center three or four times a week for lunch and dinner. Caseworkers helped him land a job at a fast-food restaurant and obtain identifying documents and clothing.

Presently, Larkin couch surfs, staying with friends as he can, and camps outside when he has nowhere else to go.

"I've been able to get the housing voucher that I have. I'm getting close to getting an apartment now because of all the help they've given me," he said.

Although Larkin hopes to attend college, balancing a work schedule without steady place to call home is challenging. Sometimes, his work schedule and hours of the youth resource center coincide so he's not able to go to the center.

A 24/7 operation "will definitely be a big help."

Having the ability to shelter the youth in place, which Volunteers of America does not have now, aside from two transitional housing facilities, will be a welcome change for youths and staff, Wesemann said.

"They can stay and be engaged in what we have to offer," he said.