Several weeks ago, our team at the Policy Project met in the office of a Utah teacher. We sat in his mismatched chairs — dark-tinted windows to his back and his favorite football helmet on display. We were there to discuss our newest project — the Teen Center Project — an effort to help all teens, with a focus on the most vulnerable, access physiological needs in order to graduate from high school. 

As we explained, “Teen Centers” would be a physical space ideally in every high school in the state. A haven where students could access food, laundry, showers and a trusted adult — someone who could connect students to other community resources that could help them. 

We asked if this would be needed?

He immediately affirmed — and reflected. 

Years earlier, while on lunchroom duty in an elementary school, this teacher walked between the tables — making sure kids weren’t throwing food or being goofballs. Amid the chaos, he noticed a boy, picking up mashed potatoes from his tray with his bare hands. The boy was putting them in his pocket. 

The teacher thought he was seeing this wrong. So he asked. 

The boy’s response? “My little sister is hungry.” He was going to take her his potatoes. 

As it turns out, too many of Utah’s kids are experiencing extreme needs like this, even with our better-than-average child poverty ranking

According to the Utah State Board of Education 2022 outcomes, 1 in 3 Utah students are economically disadvantaged, and — most severely — 15,499 Utah students are classified as homeless.

That’s 1 in 50 students without a stable home. 

And, because of inflation, housing costs, wage stagnation, COVID difficulties and other grand issues beyond any individual’s control — most definitely beyond the control of a child — those numbers are growing. Since 2020, there has been a 34% increase in students experiencing homelessness. 

New report shows increase in Utah children experiencing homelessness

In an effort to understand what these statistics look like for students in rural and urban Utah, we spent months traversing the state, collecting dozens of stories. 

These are a few. 

One recently divorced working mom in northern Utah, is living in her car with her son because she can’t afford first and last month’s rent. 

A bus driver in rural Utah picked up a boy living in a collection of neatly stacked crates with a cardboard door, despite the freezing wind.

One girl on the Wasatch Front recently entered foster care because after hitting puberty, she had repeatedly experienced sexual assault by a man living in her home. 

A principal in southern Utah turned a blind eye to several children sleeping overnight on the auditorium stage, because he couldn’t stomach turning them out onto the street. 

And hundreds of kids who don’t experience financial need, but who say they could use a granola bar because they forgot breakfast, or a five-minute reset when they’re stressed.

Washers, dryers, showers and food, even access to a trusted adult, won’t solve these problems. But putting resources where kids need them, and where we want kids to be — in school — is an idea a few Utah schools have implemented and initial outcomes are positive. 

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And as the adults in society, we need to intercept these issues while our kids are in school — while we have a collective chance to chip away at longterm homelessness, poverty and severe mental health struggles.

It’s a heavy lift, gratefully the Utah Legislature ended the session Friday with $15 million earmarked for Teen Centers. Private donors and philanthropists are matching a portion of that. Businesses and the community are being asked to participate in order to make this a reality. And students of all backgrounds are stepping up to the plate to ensure stigma and shame don’t develop.

To take care of those with great need, it takes great effort. But we know that when kids graduate from high school, they are more able to lead successful lives — hold jobs, have families, make meaningful connections that create safety nets for when difficult times come— as they do for all of us. 

A Rabbi named David Wolpe alluded to something about the relationship we share with each other, in the big and busy world in which we live. 

“I don’t think I did anything wrong to be born lucky. But I do think I do something wrong if I don’t use that to help other people find some of the luck that I’ve had.” 

Together, we are helping create some of the luck many of us have experienced. 

No more mashed potatoes in pockets.

Emily Bell McCormick is the founder and president of the Policy Project, a nonprofit organization that works to strengthen communities by implementing healthy policy. She is now heading the Teen Center Project. McCormick, a Utah native, and her husband live in Salt Lake City with their five children.