A tested solution for helping teens who are homeless, or living on the brink

Advocates are asking Utah lawmakers to appropriate millions of dollars to help fund teen centers across the state.

(Davis Education Foundation) The food pantry located in Layton High School's teen center.

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

Emily Bell McCormick, president of the Policy Project, likes to use school libraries as an analogy when explaining the concept of a teen center.

Like a library, teen centers should be easy to access. Kids should be able to find useful information. And there should be an adult sitting at a front desk helping to guide and answer questions.

Put simply: a teen center is a place in a high school where kids without a stable place to call home can go and grab food, clothes or other resources but also confide in a counselor. With more than 15,000 housing insecure students in Utah, advocates say the resource is crucial.

Last week, Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman, along with the Policy Project, asked lawmakers on the Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee for roughly $25 million to fund teen centers across the state. The Policy Project is also fundraising for more than $5 million from donors to supplement state funds. Gov. Spencer Cox also signaled support for the idea — recommending $20 million for “Teen Centers for Students Experiencing Homelessness,” in his 2024 budget recommendation.

The centers could be the connective thread for an often complicated net of social services and make navigating housing insecurity a little easier. They could “help kids understand what their options are,” Bell McCormick said. “Because they’re kids, they don’t know.”

Bell McCormick said she hasn’t found an example of another state codifying teen centers into law or mandated in a state-level directive. “We’d love to be the first,” she said.

(Davis Education Foundation) The study and relaxation room in Northridge High School's teen center.

Hoping to expand centers statewide

The Davis School District has built teen centers in six schools and plans to open another three. Private philanthropy has aided the effort, with $1 million donated by the Larry H. Miller and Gail Miller Family Foundation and the Huntsman Foundation.

East High School in the Salt Lake City School District and Hillcrest High School in Midvale, in the Canyons School District, also have centers.

“We have had teen centers for a very long time in Utah,” said Jeff Ojeda, the McKinney-Vento Utah State director. He said there are many different resources available for low-income students, but it can be hard to ensure they can access them. Teen centers “can be a great place to pool all the resources,” Ojeda said.

Advocates of teen centers point to the Davis School District as an example of how the resource can scale.

There were more than 1,700 “McKinney-Vento” students counted in the Davis District in October 2022.

The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act is a federal law aimed at keeping qualifying kids “academically involved,” Ojeda said. Every school district must try to identify children “who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence,” as well as kids and families “doubled up” with others.

That can mean kids experiencing homelessness, living on their own, or couch surfing. School districts and others across the state rely on the McKinney-Vento counts to understand how many students are classified as homeless. School districts can apply for federal funds, but resources to help students vary greatly across communities. “The resources are inadequate,” said Bell McCormick. She appreciates the federal program, but added “it’s just that we could do a better job of supporting it.”

“We try really hard to not talk about housing insecurity or use the word homeless,” said Jodi Lunt, Davis Education Foundation executive director. “We just talk about young people in transition, young people in crisis.”

Lunt said the sheer number of kids struggling in the district made her realize something needed to be done.

“We started thinking what are the barriers that get in the way of learning, eating, being clean, feeling safe? We can quickly remove those barriers and get kids into school and keep them in school.”

Aside from meeting basic needs, Lunt said, teen centers also provide the students with a trusted adult to talk to. “Whatever reason that brings you through that door,” Lunt said. “We bet we’ve got something that we can help you with.”

(Davis Education Foundation) A laundry area in Clearfield High School's teen center.

Surviving, graduating and beyond

Camille Thompson is the coordinator at Northridge High School’s teen center in Layton. The center opened this past summer and is equipped with showers, lockers, washing machines and dryers. There are two small study rooms with desks and recliners where students can do homework or catch up on sleep.

Thompson graduated from North Ridge in 1995 and could have benefitted from the resource she now helps provide. Her father struggled to hold a job and her mom worked at a Taco Bell. The family had a hard time keeping a roof over their heads with limited incomes.

“We were never homeless on the street, but I would definitely have said I was housing insecure,” Thompson said. The kids she works with often have the same experience. “They might have a place now, but who knows what they’re going to have next month,” she said.

Thompson now helps students make sure the basics are taken care of: moving their laundry from the washer to the dryer while they are in class and making sure they have enough to eat. She also encourages them to look beyond high school and think about what they would like to do afterwards.

One student who used resources at the teen center spoke to The Tribune by phone. (The Tribune is not sharing the student’s name to protect their privacy).

“Everything has helped me,” they said. “Like having supplies for home like food, clothes, even blankets. Being able to get shampoo when we need it — shampoo is expensive.” They were recently accepted into two Utah universities, and Thompson and the student have been discussing how college might further their career.

“I never would have thought about going to college before now,” the student said. “It’s pretty nice that I know that I can do it if I wanted to.”

Thompson said she burst into tears when she learned the student got into college. These moments, and others like them, feel like a gift to her.

“I remember being that kid and thinking, ‘I’m not going to be able to go on the trip, or I’m not going to be able to take an AP test, I don’t have money for that,’” Thompson recalled. “It’s kind of a full circle having this job, because I want kids to know they don’t have to feel shame for asking for extra food or clothing.”