I am often asked if there is any way to help homeless youth. “Yes, please,” I usually say, “they need clean socks, new underwear. When it is cold, they need handwarmers. They also need sleeping bags, blankets, and if you have one, a wooden pallet so they don’t have to sleep on the ground. And food – something they can cook on a makeshift camp stove, and if you are feeling flush, could you donate some sterno for fuel?” But what I want to say is, “No!” What homeless youth need is far beyond what we can buy for them or donate to them.
They are the nameless, faceless shadows in the local park, they are in front of the library, lined up to use the bathroom in the morning. They are sometimes holding a sign asking for help. Usually, though, you don’t see them unless they trust you. There are over 1,300 homeless youth at last count, but the count isn’t accurate because the majority of homeless youth are too afraid to be counted, who stay away from shelters for fear of assault or worse, who don’t ever talk to adults because they have been exploited once, or maybe many times.
At OUTreach Resource Center, we work with about 350 youth from all over Utah some from Idaho, with 30% reporting to us that they are homeless. They make it to our center for food and supplies, to use the Internet, and sometimes for the classes we offer. But even more important, they come to our center because they are human and we are human, and that is what they crave more than anything we can give them.
The majority of the youth we work with identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Statewide, the numbers are about half who call themselves LGB or T, and that means the number is higher. Youth often don’t self-identify as LGBT for fear of bullying or worse. Of those roughly 50% LGBT homeless youth, 60% report that they are from Latter-day Saint homes. At OUTreach, the vast majority of the youth we serve are from Mormon homes, and far too often the reason they are living on the streets, in a camp, car or couch is because their parent said to them, “Pack your backpack and be out before dawn. Come back when you have “straightened up” or don’t come back at all.”
For these youth, some as young as 14, they are left to fend for themselves. What usually happens is that as soon as they hit the street with their backpack or suitcase, a “helpful” adult offers them a ride and a couch to sleep on. The youth’s trust is misplaced when she or he is assaulted at night, or perhaps injected with drugs while she sleeps, and then enters into a life of addiction and trauma that lasts until true help is found, or too often, in tragic death. There are no numbers for homeless youth suicides, but what we do know is that one of their camps in the canyon near Salt Lake City is called Suicide Rock. Every youth I meet knows one, two or several youth who have lost their life to suicide. The epidemic of LGBT youth homelessness and suicide in Utah is inextricably linked.
OUTreach recently started a host home project so that youth from Mormon homes wouldn’t ever face a dark cold night with a freshly packed suitcase and nowhere to turn. We see that the only way to help homeless youth is to prevent youth homelessness. The trauma of rejection, assault, and fear is incapacitating, with only a handful surviving to create the underground nation that we can’t accurately count. It is these youth I see, as they travel through our region and the country, searching for safe human contact, and yes food and shelter. Our volunteers give them what we can, and the humanity that they crave. But we can never give them their childhood back, or the love of their parents, siblings, grandparents, and church. They are faceless, nameless shadows, populating an underground nation, right next to us, to you, every day.
If you would like to learn more about OUTreach, click here.