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Youth Futures uses outreach program to engage with community, help young people

Sunday , June 10, 2018 - 5:00 AM1 comment

OGDEN — When the big, blue van stops by the Lantern House homeless shelter, the residents hanging out across the street stop what they are doing and stare at it.

This is not the first time they see vans that look like this, but this one has white squares on each side and on the back with the words “Youth Futures” in green and white.

A short woman with straight hair with purple tips wearing a tie-dye T-shirt gets off the van. She is the driver and her name is Shi Alex. She’s a member of the outreach team of Youth Futures, a shelter for homeless youth. The shelter, at 2760 Adams Ave., is open 24 hours, seven days a week for homeless youth ages 12 to 18.

“Hi! Do you need anything from the van?” Alex asks a woman who is approaching them with three little boys, her grandkids. “How are you?”

The van is stocked with things that she, along with fellow team member Matt Jensen, are giving away for free. There are socks, blankets, canned food, Narcan, condoms, soap and water.

The woman, 48-year-old Maria Gio, gets some blankets and water for her grandkids. She tells Alex and Jensen she just came back from Lubbock, Texas.

“I’ve been looking for work. We just came back from Texas,” Gio says. “It’s the starting out.”

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Alex fills bags for the little kids with some hygiene products. She also gives Gio a business card and gives her the speech she will repeat over and over to almost everyone she meets on this sweltering afternoon — it’s a safe place for kids 12 to 18 years old, they provide the food, it’s an emergency shelter. Alex also pleads that if Gio knows a teenager that needs help, she should send them their way.

This is something Alex and Jensen, and a handful of volunteers, do every Wednesday and Friday. They call it outreach, and they go to about four popular spots around Ogden where they know they will find homeless adults. But, why reach out to adults if their focus is on serving teenagers?

Defining homelessness

According to a research brief from the University of Chicago, one in 30 adolescents ages 13 to 17 has experienced or will experience some homelessness over the course of a year in the U.S. The study also shows that the national statistic for young adults ages 18 to 25 is one in 10.

In Utah, according to numbers provided by Youth Futures, it is estimated that about 5,000 youth will spend at least one night each year on the streets.

Elizabeth Bowen, an associate professor at the University at Buffalo, researched youth homelessness for several years. She said there are different ways to define homelessness. The federal government, for example, has different definitions depending on the agency.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, someone homeless “lacks a fixed, regular, and nighttime residence.” A person who lives in “a supervised or publicly operated shelter designed to provide temporary living accommodations; an institution that provides a temporary residence for individuals intended to be institutionalized including welfare hotels, congregate shelters, and transitional housing for the mentally ill; or a public or private place not designed for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings,” is also considered homeless.

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The Runaway and Homeless Youth Act and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development define homelessness in different ways. However, there seems to be an opportunity to find common ground.

“In the research community there is recognition that we need to think broadly about what homelessness means,” Bowen said. “A big part of homelessness that doesn’t get recognized is couch surfing.”

Couch surfing is when a young person moves from place to place, finding temporary shelter with people they know but without finding a stable home.

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Bowen said there are youth that are homeless because their parents are homeless. Others run away from home. But couch surfing is a big concern for those who research the homeless population, as it is hard to identify who is doing it. 

That’s the reason why the Youth Futures outreach team engages with adults. Jensen and Alex said they want to establish a relationship with the adult population in the area to gain their trust, as many youth are couch surfing with them.

Jensen said they ask adults to fill out an information package so they can have a better idea of who they are and better serve them. That part, he said, is the start to building a rapport with them.

“We are doing more relationship building and trying to get that information from them and build upon that week after week so we have that relationship, (so) they can trust us, they know where to go, they know what we do and so they can send the kids our way,” Jensen said. “That’s the hope.”

Lives touched

Youth Futures gets most of its clients through referrals, although it has picked about 10 kids over the past seven months from the streets and have brought them to the shelter, Jensen said. 

Their final goal is to help the youth reunify with their family members, as long as that’s the best option for everyone involved.

“A lot of our kids are there for just a few days or a week,” Jensen said. However, if a youth is in need of a long-term stay, the shelter provides a place for them to stay as well. That’s the case of Miranda Trujillo, an 18-year-old who left the shelter in January after a seven-month stay.

Trujillo said she was homeless for about 10 years. A lot of things happened before she ended up at the shelter: her father was deported, her mother abused her, her siblings forgot about her.

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She was a high school student when her counselor at George Washington High School recommended she go to Youth Futures.

“It was probably the best seven months of my whole 18 years,” Trujillo said. “They always kept me safe. That was the big thing.”

She said one of the most challenging things before going to the shelter was overcoming the embarrassment she felt when she thought about others knowing she was going to stay there.

She decided to give the shelter a chance, and — after some initial rough weeks — she was able to adjust and even graduate. She even invited the Youth Future employees to her graduation.

“That’s home to me, not anywhere else I’ve lived,” Trujillo said. “That’s home.”

A learning experience

The staff at Youth Futures sometimes has to do on-the-spot crisis interventions. Other times it has to help the youth with their homework. The staff pretty much does everything, even when — for some — this is their first time working with the homeless. 

Jensen said his perspective on homelessness has changed since he started working for the organization seven months ago.

“I think I had a lot of misconceptions about homelessness and … about the causes of it,” Jensen said. “It’s really not like a motivation or a desire thing. It’s that they have needs that aren’t getting met and they can’t get them anywhere, so they end up in the streets.”

Alex said that although working on the outreach team can sometimes be emotionally difficult, she looks forward every week to seeing the people they serve.

“It’s a huge emotional job you have, you just have to learn not to take it home,” Alex said. “I just take it for what it is every day, and … hopefully, I’ll see them next week and we can follow up.”

Contact education reporter Sergio Martínez-Beltrán at or 801-625-4274. Follow him on Twitter @SergioMarBel and like him on Facebook at

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