Young Utah adults leave homelessness and couch surfing to restart their lives in these transition homes

( Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune ) Left to right, Volunteers of America Utah program manager Summer Elton and Pitece Hopkinson cook a holiday meal for the VOA home's temporary residents, December 18, 2018. The Volunteers of America Utah operates two homes in Salt Lake City to homeless young adults, many of whom were turned away by their families or aged out of foster care. Staff members help the women and men finish their education, find jobs and learn life skills so they can transition to independent living or reunify with family members.

Earlier this year, 21-year-old Cory was couch surfing and living part time on the streets, which made it hard for him to hold down a job.

Mason Covington — a 23-year-old who struggled with a drug problem before getting sober almost a year ago — had no job, no home and nowhere to go.

The future looked iffy for these Utahns. But both moved this summer to the Young Men’s Transition Home near downtown Salt Lake City. Now they have steady jobs and long-term goals.

“Things are looking up,” said Cory, who asked that his last name not be used, worried about the stigma of having been homeless. “I’ve really made a lot of progress.”

After his mother died two years ago, he ended up on the street, then at the Youth Resource Center, an emergency shelter in downtown Salt Lake City operated by Volunteers of America Utah. From there, he went to VOA Utah’s transition home five months ago.

Cory, who now works as a cook at a downtown restaurant, plans to finish high school and get a college degree, possibly in business. He wants to buy a car and eventually get his own place to live.

Covington, a hip-hop artist who performs as King Cuhvee, also made his way to the transition home and found a job installing windows. He now wants to go to college to study music production, he said.

VOA Utah, which also operates a Young Women’s Transition Home a few blocks away, has residential programs at both places that provide guidance and structure to help homeless young adults transition to independent living or reunify with family members.

The young women and men work with staff members to develop independent living plans and get assistance with education, employment and life-skill building.

The clients — young women who are ages 16 to 21 and young men 18 to 24 — have their own rooms and can stay up to 18 months. The homes provide security, meals, clothing, hygiene supplies, medical and dental care and mental health counseling.

The difference in the age ranges is due to the requirements of the different federal grants supporting the facilities. The men’s home has a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and, including other funding, has an overall budget of $490,000. The women’s home has a grant from the Women, Family and Youth Service and has a total budget of $442,000 .

A maximum of 14 clients can live at the men’s home and seven can live at the women’s home; the women’s home is smaller because traditionally more men than women are homeless.

The homes also depend on community donations to cover some expenses, such as application fees for school. That might seem like a small thing but it makes a big difference, according to Sarah Strang, VOA Utah’s division director of homeless services.

Strang said young people can end up with no place to live because of family conflict, a possibility that increases when youths identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Some of the homeless young people have been in foster care or in the juvenile justice system, she said.

Economic hardship also can lead to homelessness. A family that loses housing might end up staying with friends or relatives and as youths get older, the hosts might want only the younger kids staying with them, Strang said.

“They might have to start fending for themselves much earlier than expected,” she said.

In fiscal year 2017-18, the Young Women’s Transition Home housed 10 clients who stayed an average of 10 months. Nine left to stable housing, six earned their high school diplomas or GED and six either got a job or found a new job with higher pay.

Of the 23 men at the home that year, 16 left for permanent housing and nine either got a job or found a new job with higher pay.

Covington said he had hit rock bottom before starting his recovery from addiction but now he’s back on track after three years of living “such a bad life.” He recently released an album and headlined a show in November, and for the first time, he’s enjoying working and likes being a functioning member of society, he said.

“This place has definitely helped me transition to a normal life,” Covington said.

Roger Condie, program manager at the men’s home, said that after a few months, the lives of clients start to improve as they start jobs, go to school and put down roots. They also learn how to build healthy relationships, he said.

“We try to spend time with them and bond with them,” Condie said.

The Young Women’s Transition Home has the same supportive atmosphere and family feel to it. There are rooms where the residents can watch TV, play games or just hang out. They can turn to the staff members if they have a problem.

“We’re here anytime they want to talk,” said Pitece Hopkinson, a youth advocate.

Once residents get settled, education becomes the main focus. Some go to the same school they were attending before moving in, others start at a new school and some study online.

Former client Elizabeth Winfrey also is proof of how the transition homes can improve lives. Because of her mother’s drug problem, she left home at age 15 to live with a friend and her family but had to return after her hosts were evicted. A teacher she told about her situation suggested the transition home.

The new living situation helped stabilize her life and gave her security. The best part was that she was not alone when she came home, Winfrey said.

“There was always someone here to greet you,” she said.

Now 22, Winfrey is a high school graduate and has completed her first semester at Salt Lake Community College. She lives in her own apartment but returned to the transition home two and a half years after she left it, this time for a job as a youth advocate.

Today, she occasionally marvels at how far she’s come, compared to how her life could have turned out. “I would have been couch surfing,” Winfrey said. “This place really saved my life.”

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