New transitional housing offers homeless youth a safe place to land

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson tours a new home for Salt Lake County Youth Services’ Milestone Transitional Living Program (TLP) in Sandy on Wednesday, July 8, 2020. At right is program manager Mina Koplin.

Sandy • When she first walked into the Milestone transitional house for young adults experiencing homelessness in West Valley City two years ago, Maygan Martinez breathed “a sigh of relief.”

The five-bedroom house offered a number of luxuries she didn’t have during the nights when her home was her car: climate control, a bed to sleep in, and a stable and safe space where she could finally begin piecing her life back together.

“It was just like a sigh of relief because you’re not in that survival mode anymore,” Martinez, 21, said in an interview. “I’m not staying up all night. I can finally get a good night’s sleep feeling safe. I don’t have to carry weapons on me anymore. Especially being a woman, I’m not scared to be on the streets anymore.”

Martinez, who spent three months in the program and is now the manager at the West Valley facility, spoke Wednesday as the Milestone Transitional Living Program unveiled a new four-bedroom house in Sandy similar to the one she lived in — a place where young adults in need can gain access to case management, life skills classes and more.

The 18-to-21-year-olds the transitional housing program serves have a unique need for these resources, said Mina Koplin, program manager for Milestone Transitional Living.

“If we can step in with these young people at 18, 19, 20 and help change their trajectory and they can stay with us for a year and a half and finish their high school diploma, get their driver’s license, get enrolled in college, work on their [federal student loan application], you’re going to see these young people just successfully transition rather than staying in a life of homelessness,” Koplin said.

Youth under the age of 24 made up about 6% of the state’s homeless population in 2019, according to an annual point-in-time count of people experiencing homelessness. In total, there were at least 163 people in that age range experiencing homelessness that year: 130 of them unsheltered and 33 sheltered.

With the opening of the new house, the Milestone program now has the capacity to serve a total of 19 youth in the Salt Lake Valley. Oftentimes, these clients have recently aged out of the foster care system, as in Martinez’s case. The organization also takes referrals from youth homeless shelters in the Wasatch Front and from the Department of Workforce Services.

The Milestone program places a priority on self sufficiency and education, and clients who live in its houses are required to make progress toward personal “milestones,” stay in contact with their program mentor and follow house rules prohibiting drugs, alcohol, violence and criminal activities.

In an effort to teach budgeting skills, those who live at the house are also required to pay program fees, which start at $100 a month for the first three months and continue to increase by $50 every three months. At the end of the program, those funds are returned to the clients and are often used as a down payment for their first apartment. They can stay for up to 18 months.

The Milestone program is funded through a combination of federal funds and Salt Lake County dollars and has served 200 young adults experiencing homelessness since it began in 2012. And it professes an 82% success rate, meaning clients exited the program to stable housing and are working or attending school.

The new Sandy house, which will begin serving male clients later this month, is Milestone’s fourth in the Salt Lake Valley and its third in partnership with the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, which is located nearby and put $70,000 into renovating the Sandy house.

“Why do we do this?” Pastor James Wakefield said Wednesday as he recounted the challenges in renovating a house that he later said went way over budget and seemed to present new problems at every turn. “It’s what God wants us to do. And we believe we can all have a better future "

Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson became emotional Wednesday as she spoke to church leaders and Milestone staff and youth at a celebration of the house’s opening. During her remarks, she reflected on the needs of her own 18-year-old son and the importance of a secure environment to help lift young adults out of the cycle homelessness.

“Even when life has chaos outside, when you can come home and feel that retreat and safety, it really makes a difference,” she said.