Marian Edmonds-Allen: The power of coming together to support our most vulnerable

How I stopped arguing, made a new friend and helped homeless young people in Utah.

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Balloons (environmentally-friendly) are released at the opening of Volunteers of America, Utah's new Youth Resource Center in Salt Lake City, Tuesday May 24, 2016. The $6 million, 20,000-square-foot facility will offer 24/7 support as well as education, counseling and job training to help teens struggling with homelessness. Kathy Bray, the president and CEO of VOA-Utah, said the shelter will offer security to young people ages 15 to 22 and also will focus on health, education and employment.

The young person was slight, with blonde hair, wearing unremarkable jeans and a T-shirt and carrying a backpack. He could have been anyone’s child.

Most people wouldn’t have guessed he was homeless, but I noticed his worn-out shoes and the backpack that was two sizes too large for his small frame. I watched him walk by right as I was trying to convince Laura Warburton, then a powerful legislative aide, that yes, there actually were youth experiencing homelessness in Utah.

I had invited her to our center to see for herself, but she still was unconvinced. Surely, she repeated even more forcefully, the LGBT youth at the center were all willful runaways, defying their religious parents to live a wild lifestyle.

I was beginning to feel desperate. It was October and getting cold fast, and I knew that the 5,000 or so young people who experienced homelessness in Utah every year would find it hard to survive without shelter. In Utah, unaccompanied children couldn’t legally be sheltered. They couldn’t be given a warm bed to escape the freezing cold even briefly.

Laura grew tired of our arguing, too, and the young person caught her eye. He had begun putting canned goods in the oversized backpack, slowly, and then more quickly when he noticed her attention. She asked him how old he was. He stuffed in some new socks and then answered her question, mumbling something indiscernible, then louder: “18!” We all knew that wasn’t true. Laura’s face finally softened, “Really?” She countered. “No, I’m 12,” he said.

Laura studied him, amazed, but I wasn’t surprised. The average age for a youth experiencing homelessness was 14 — and I had seen children younger doing the same thing — gathering food and supplies to bring back to their “family” of other homeless youth, usually around a dozen, each with a different job to do: gathering food and supplies or keeping an eye out for police who would destroy their camp and arrest them, or for human traffickers who would pick them off one by one to ship in a U-Haul for Johns looking for someone new and young.

Laura had gotten over her shock and now was in problem solving mode: “What do you need all that food for? Why do you need all those socks? You aren’t homeless … are you?” The line of questioning and intense interest was a danger sign for the youth, who edged past us on his way to meet up with other members of his homeless youth family.

Laura wasn’t done trying to talk to him, thought and finally she called after him, like the mom she is, “And where is your coat?”

Beginning that day, Laura became a champion for youth experiencing homelessness. She became a tireless legislative powerhouse and brought together coalitions across partisan divides to change the laws in Utah to help LGBT youth experiencing homelessness have access to shelter and then to do even more to prevent homelessness.

Laura’s life changed when she met that young person with the too-large backpack. And mine did, too. I changed from always fighting people that I thought were the enemy of the LGBT community to realizing that my supposed enemy could perhaps be my very best ally. To this day I look for the most unlikely people to befriend and to invite them to join in making our country and world a more loving place where everyone can thrive.

I also now realize the power of legislation to change lives for the better and I am hopeful that our country’s politicians will come together in a bipartisan way to pass federal nondiscrimination legislation to protect the LGBT community.

Sometimes, though, it starts with a kid in a T-shirt on a cold October day.

The week after Laura’s visit to my LGBT youth center I received a call to help a truck driver who was trying to get into our small parking lot. An 18-wheeler in our tiny parking lot. That was a first. But even more remarkable? It was filled with hundreds of warm coats piled high, a gift from Laura and her church for the LGBT youth at the center — more than enough for everyone.

Rev. Marian Edmonds-Allen | PARITY

The Rev. Marian Edmonds-Allen is the executive director of Parity, a national nonprofit that works at the intersection of faith and LGBTQ+ issues. She is a Utah resident and has also spent more than a decade advocating for the care of youth experiencing homelessness. November is National Homeless Youth Awareness Month.