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New Youth Resource Center is a celebration of hope, possibilities

Real estate agent's story depicts importance of getting teens off streets

SALT LAKE CITY — If anyone questions the need for a stand-alone shelter and services for homeless and vulnerable youths age 15 to 22, look no further than to Shelly Tripp for answers.

As one of the top real estate agents in the Salt Lake Valley, Tripp has helped hundreds of clients find a place to settle down and sink roots. If she knows the importance of home and a sense of security, it's perhaps because for much of her childhood she had neither.

Born to teenage parents, Tripp's childhood was marred by abuse, neglect and want, she said, speaking at the grand opening of Volunteers of America–Utah's Youth Resource Center on Tuesday.

She and her brother were born 10 months apart. Their mother was an alcoholic and her father was a drug dealer. As children, Tripp and her brother "had to get the drugs ready to be sold," she said.

By age 13, Tripp, her brother and father were sharing a one-bedroom travel trailer. "Conditions were difficult and I ran away and I went to the park by myself and hid and survived. The only person I could trust and the only person I would talk to was Heavenly Father, who was my dad. He saved my life," she said.

In a couple month's time Tripp got off the streets.

"It's so important our street teens are off the streets in that time. As time goes on, it gets tougher and tougher. My brother stayed on the streets. He's now in prison for attempted murder," she said.

Tripp, addressing donors, community leaders, elected officials and community members gathered for the opening of VOA's first-ever 24/7 youth resources center and shelter, said the new center will provide safety, security and opportunity to teens experiencing homelessness and crisis.

"What you're doing is greater, bigger than you can imagine. You are helping teens like myself become successful and get an opportunity. They just need one opportunity and then the next opportunity comes, it's their choice. I'm so grateful for everything our community is doing to help these teens because it also helps us and it heals us in giving back," she said.

The center, located at 888 S. 400 West, is a safe and comfortable place for homeless and at-risk youths to seek food and shelter, figure out their next moves and assemble supports they need to be successful.

Kathy Bray, president and CEO of Volunteers of America–Utah, said the center represents the contributions of 500 donors, public and private.

"This what I call the power of community, all the people who are with us who are funding this effort, a full parking lot full of people who care and a brand new building we're going to open pretty soon, maybe Thursday," she said.

Geysi Palacios, 20, who has frequented VOA's long-time homeless youth resource center at 655 S. State after moving to Utah in January, said the new facility is "intense."

"It's not the same little building we used to have. It's going to take some time to get used to," she said.

Palacios, who likes to cook, said she was particularly impressed by the center's industrial kitchen.

Although the center is licensed for up to 30 shelter beds, Palacios said she does not believe she will be staying at the shelter. "I'm working with my case manager to get into housing," she said. However, she will continue to come to the center for services.

The new center is 20,000 square feet on two floors, with space for group meetings, a computer lab, classrooms, private spaces where case managers can meet with youths and quiet nooks where clients have a safe places to rest and reflect, said Rob Wesemann, VOA's division director of homeless services.

"Stability is the key. The goal of the facility is to help people gain their own independence, be able to live in the community, gain employment and be off on their own. They can't do that if they have no stability," he said.

The former homeless youth resource center was open limited hours and had no shelter beds so youth often would walk the streets at night until the doors of the center opened the next morning because they fear for their safety and they do not feel comfortable staying in shelters with older adults.

“One of the things we know is young people struggle trusting adults. Their life has been really littered with experiences of people they should have been able to place their trust in and it didn't work out. The people they needed most to care for them didn't stay or didn't show up or whatever. So what we want to provide is a place where they can be where we're not going to be hovering over them," Wesemann said.

The new center also has showers, laundry facilities, lockers for client storage and dedicated spaces for volunteers and an on-site legal clinic.

The first floor features a cozy commons area with a fireplace, a grab-and-go pantry and a "store" where clients can select among free donated clothing items.

Cots in sleeping areas will be set up and cleared each day by clients, staff and volunteers, which encourages clients to participate in the process and make the space available during the day for other purposes.

Part of the challenge of moving to the new facility has been ramping up programs and services to a round-the-clock operation and encouraging youth who have received services on State Street to make the transition to the new youth center, Bray said.

"I think about this young man who's currently living in the foothills in a tent. We've been encouraging him to come into the shelter when we open. Hopefully, he will. We're using motivational interviewing techniques in a trauma-informed way to encourage him to come into the shelter to get his basic needs met and maybe he'll also get his high school diploma and a different kind of job," Bray said.

"So let's keep praying for Joey that he comes in. We're going to keep trying because that's what we do."

Tripp said she shared her story "as an example of how important our homeless teens are, how each one of them can be extremely successful and how they can give back to you.

"We all need to be healed. We all need to feel important. It's a big circle of helping each other, two worlds coming together."