Utah lawmakers mull request for $2.5M to build school-based centers for homeless teens

Existing centers in the state often offer academic resources, as well as food and other basic needs.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) East High School is among a handful of high schools in Utah that have opened a center with resources for homeless students. Now, Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, is hoping the state will provide $2.5 million in funding to help other schools build similar centers.

Utah schools might soon get additional resources to create spaces where teens experiencing homelessness can meet some of their basic needs and prepare for their future.

Rep. Steve Eliason is asking fellow lawmakers to set aside $2.5 million in state funding this year to establish teen centers in middle and high schools interested in operating them.

Proponents of the plan hope it will be a way of confronting at least some of the educational challenges homeless students face, pointing out that kids who are couch surfing or sleeping in cars have to think about basic survival — making it that much harder for them to focus on school.

“If you think about Maslow’s hierarchy [of needs], if you’re worried about where you’re going to sleep or what you’re going to eat, what’s on the agenda for school that day is probably fairly low down the list,” Eliason, R-Sandy, said during a Monday legislative hearing.

There are already a handful of teen centers in Utah at schools such as Clearfield High, East High and Hillcrest High, he said.

Students who use these spaces often have access to showers, a food pantry and washers and dryers so they can do their laundry. The centers can also provide study space, college application assistance, resume-building resources and counseling services, according to testimony at the hearing.

Clearfield’s center even has a “mindfulness room” where students can learn how to manage some of the stress and anxiety they face, Eliason said.

Sen. Kathleen Riebe, a Cottonwood Heights Democrat who works as a schoolteacher, said access to simple resources like these can mean a great deal to students who are experiencing homelessness or other challenging life circumstances.

“The ability to wash your clothes with clean soap and water is just something that we take for granted. And to work with low-income kids, to see them come to school and be embarrassed by their clothing … I mean, I just really appreciate how thoughtful this is and how it’s going to help so many young people,” she said.

If approved by lawmakers later this session, the one-time infusion of $2.5 million from the state would fund construction and renovation projects to open the centers, although the schools would be responsible for covering the costs of running them, according to Eliason.

Under his plan, high schools or middle schools would apply for the funding through a grant program administered by the Utah State Board of Education. He estimates that $2.5 million might be enough to cover a dozen or even two dozen new centers in Utah and said state lawmakers could consider putting more money into the program in the future if there’s a high demand for it.

Gail Miller, a philanthropist and owner of the Larry H. Miller Group of Companies, told state lawmakers that her family and the Huntsman family are each donating $500,000 to support the creation of these teen centers.

During Monday’s hearing before a legislative committee that oversees education budget requests, Miller described the challenges of her own upbringing, saying she used to put her father’s socks onto her hands because her parents couldn’t afford to buy winter gloves.

But she said at least she had a roof over her head and stability that homeless teens are lacking.

“They don’t know where their next meal is coming from or how their clothing needs are going to be met,” she said. “But in spite of these challenges, they are trying their best to complete their schooling and make something of themselves.”