School starts this week for most Utahns, but many children don’t have a secure place to sleep, much less to do homework.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, about 1 in 20 Utah children under age 6 are homeless or have experienced homelessness because their parents or guardians can’t afford a place to live. Meanwhile, nearly 1 in 4 Utah families with children under 18 have a high housing cost burden. Many families with kids are just one paycheck away from being evicted.

In 2018, roughly 17% of all Utah public school students, 12,011 students, reported experiencing some degree of housing insecurity or homelessness at some point, according to data from the Utah State Board of Education, which provides services and resources to youths under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Act

Unaccompanied homeless youths are the most vulnerable. According to the Homeless Management Information System for Utah, approximately 2,112 unaccompanied youths between ages 15 to 22 sought homeless services this past fiscal year 2018-19.   

So, what do Utah policymakers need to know, and do, so that all children have access to secure housing? What additional challenges do unaccompanied homeless youths face? Many simple needs, if met, would very likely lead to healthier transitions into adulthood and prevent costly system interactions in the future.

Secure housing is critical for youths. Sadly, many may not know they can obtain housing. Many just want a safe, quiet, and “normal” place to sleep. Youths experiencing homelessness can now legally find shelter and services without a guardian’s permission, thanks to HB371 Consent to Services for Homeless Youth. That’s an improvement, but youths say they worry about safety in shelters. Most want their own secure place. 

In reality, housing is out of reach for tens of thousands of Utahns. Despite all the new housing we’re seeing across the Wasatch Front, only the well-off can afford most of these new units, budgeting 30% of their income. The market is not addressing Utah’s growing housing shortage for working families. Recent legislation requires cities to specifically address affordable housing and homelessness, but the Legislature provided no funding along with the bill. 

Health care, mental and physical, is another significant barrier. Many youths aren’t aware of their options. Youths who have Medicaid at the time they age out of state custody qualify for Medicaid until they are 21, but some may not go through the process of applying and maintaining their coverage.

Youths experiencing homelessness crave a support system and don’t know how to live on their own. Most homeless kids are in survival mode and they don’t know how to budget or maintain everyday responsibilities. But many want to learn. They want workshops on budgeting, communication, cooking, and other life skills. Many want to go to school or stay in school.   

Thankfully, schools are stepping up with resources for youths who need shelter, clothing or access to a food pantry. Unfortunately, only a small fraction of Utah youths — 4% — who experience homelessness are receiving help through Federal Head Start or McKinney-Vento ECO programs, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Youths need our help accessing these underutilized resources.  

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Finally, many youths want mentors and support from people with lived experience. Authentic friendships with caring adults they can trust are everything for these young people with extra barriers and challenges. 

We need legislators and other community leaders to understand the challenges facing so many Utah youths. We need our leaders to prioritize housing that people can afford — and fund it. Doing this will help to stabilize our schools, our workforce and our communities. We need to help homeless youths access the resources available to them, like 2-1-1, Self-Help Resources at the courts and other programs. We need to make sure children’s needs are being met at schools through McKinney-Vento to keep them safely in school and learning. 

With school starting again, we must ensure that every child has a secure place to sleep, do their homework and succeed. 

Rep. Elizabeth Weight represents Utah’s House District 31. Tara Rollins is the executive director for the Utah Housing Coalition.

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