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Salt Lake County celebrates opening of new home for young adults experiencing homelessness

Mina Koplin, manager of Salt Lake County’s Milestone Transitional Living Program, takes Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson on a tour of the program’s new house in Sandy on Wednesday, July 8, 2020. The four-bedroom house was remodeled in partnership with Good Shepherd Lutheran Church and will help provide housing to young adults, ages 18-21, who are experiencing homelessness.
Mina Koplin, manager of Salt Lake County’s Milestone Transitional Living Program, takes Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson on a tour of the program’s new house in Sandy on Wednesday, July 8, 2020. The four-bedroom house was remodeled in partnership with Good Shepherd Lutheran Church and will help provide housing to young adults, ages 18-21, who are experiencing homelessness.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SANDY — When Maygan Martinez, fresh out of the foster care system, set off on her own and started college at Weber State University, she says she soon found herself overwhelmed with work, school and the partying that often comes along with the life of a new student.

One night, she fell asleep at the wheel after staying out late and got into a serious car accident.

“And after that, it put me into this really, really bad depression. For a good couple months I stopped going to school, stopped going to classes, failed my classes, lost my housing. So I moved in with a friend — that doesn’t always work, of course. So I ended back up on the streets,” Martinez recalled.

She then stayed at the Volunteers of America youth shelter for a few months before she was referred to the Salt Lake County Division of Youth Services’ Milestone Program, a transitional living program that aims to help young adults between 18-21 find employment that pays a living wage and stable housing.

There’s an 80% to 83% success rate after clients leave the program, meaning they are still housed and employed, said program manager Mina Koplin. In June, the National Association of Counties recognized Milestone with an achievement award in the category of human services.

On Wednesday, Salt Lake County celebrated the opening of an additional Milestone house, which will add four beds to the current 15-bed capacity. The homes are rented to the program by the neighboring Good Shepherd Lutheran Church at an affordable cost.

The newly added home required several months of renovation and $70,000 in costs, with time and supplies donated by volunteers — work that went on despite the pandemic, Koplin said.

The setting feels different than that of the traditional homeless system. Milestone has a group of houses in Sandy and West Valley City, where about four clients each stay at a time. The houses look like those of any college students, with bright, trendy decor — except perhaps cleaner.

“This is what God wants us to do,” Pastor James Wakefield said of his congregation’s commitment to the program. “And as I get to know the stories, it just, it blesses me, and I always feel like we get a lot more than we give.”

Before touring the house on Wednesday, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson said its opening represents progress continuing even during the COVID-19 pandemic. She urged the youth there to “do their best” and take challenges day by day.

“You can’t lean into success without a foundation. And there’s a beautiful foundation here, a beautiful home, and I’m really, really excited about what it represents for all of you,” Wilson said.

Martinez said working back to stability after homelessness was challenging and “it was a relief that I actually had a bed to go home to at night.”

“It was just kind of a sigh of relief because you’re not in that survival mode anymore, you don’t have to worry about ... staying up all night anymore, I can finally get a night of sleep feeling safe,” Martinez said.

But knowing the situation was temporary, Martinez continued working and returned to school. Now, she remains with the program as a house manager and leads the Division of Youth Services’ Youth Council.

“Everything about Milestone is about creating an environment that is housing-friendly, that is for them, and it’s specific to them feeling that, ‘I am in a space that I am safe, and I’m cared for, and I can then work on my self-sufficiency, and I can work on my goals,’” Koplin explained.

Last year, Milestone served 33 young adults — five of whom graduated from high school or earned their GEDs during that time. The others are either preparing for college or vocational training and working.

The program runs with county and federal funding, and costs $517,000 a year, Koplin said.

Young adults get referred by Workforce Services, the Division of Child and Family Services, the Youth Resource Center, or the county’s juvenile receiving center and crisis residential treatment facility. Some, like Martinez, are transitioning out of foster care and have already overcome many challenges, Koplin said.

They can stay up to a year and a half, but the average stay ranges between nine and 10 months. During that time, Milestone offers therapy and other resources.

The clients pay “program fees” if they’re working — a $50 deposit and $100 a month, which rises incrementally. That money gets placed into a savings account that gets returned to them when they exit the program — it’s roughly $3,000 at the end of the year, Koplin said.

Many of the clients use the money to buy cars on their path to self-sufficiency, she said.

When a client moves in, they receive a “move-in kit” and a new bed that they take with them after they move out, as well as a “move-out kit” with essentials to help them set up their new home. A volunteer comes in and helps clients decorate when they move into the Milestone home to make it their own, Koplin said.

“The whole philosophy of Milestone is we want to create a community for these young people. So we want a space where they’re safe and they’re welcome, and then you have mentors and you have other individuals in the community that are willing to come in and say, ‘This is what this is all for. And this is what we can do,’” Koplin said.