The Plight of Homeless Youth in the Mormon Heartland

05/31/2016 05:14 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The plight of the homeless of any age is heart-wrenching, but when the homeless are unaccompanied teens in the midst of Mormon's home base in Salt Lake City, Utah and its surrounding Wasatch Front cities, it is especially difficult to hear about. Mormons are a Christian denomination and as such, are a church of love, but in recent years, there have been questions about whether this love extends to LGBT Mormons.

On its website www.mormonsandgays,org, the Mormon church says, "As people with hopes, fears and aspirations like everyone else, these neighbors deserve our love. But we can't truly love the neighbors next door if we don't love the neighbors under our own roof. Family members with same-sex attraction need our love and understanding. God loves all his children alike, much more than any of us can comprehend, and expects us to follow." The website quotes Quentin L. Cook that "no one should be more loving and more compassionate" to those who have a different lifestyle choice. Nonetheless, the recent policy change in November of 2015 that labels same-sex married Mormons as apostates has caused a great deal of pain and suffering in the LGBT Mormon community, and especially among young Mormon teens.

In Ogden, Utah, just 30 miles north of Salt Lake City, a homeless youth shelter Youth Futures, opened on February 20, 2015. Youth Futures for the first time offers services targeted for homeless teens (straight or LGBT+), who have different needs than the adult homeless population. Executive Director Kristen Mitchell and President Scott Catuccio are life partners who have spent more than six years working to open this shelter. It could only be opened after overcoming a legislative barrier in 2014 as a new law passed so that youth shelters could avoid being charged with "harboring a minor." But because Youth Futures is run entirely on private donations at a tune of $26,000 a month, they are desperately in need of donations.

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If you are interested in donating, you can go here to sign up for a regular, monthly donation or a one-time donation. In-kind donations like warm clothing, toiletry items, and bottled water are always appreciated, but things you might not think about include bus passes and tokens, earbuds, and gift cards for clothing, hair salon or even for fun activities like a movie or Lagoon passes (a local amusement park). Larger items like a minivan to help transport youth would also be appreciated, as would new couches and a volunteer to help repair storm doors and cement. Volunteers who can help with yard work, tutors, or food preparers are also greatly needed. Please contact Youth Future directly if you have a large donation. Other donations can be dropped off at 2760 Adams Ave in Ogden, Utah.

Youth Futures serves youth 12-17 who are unaccompanied. They have 14 temporary beds and have had nearly 1,500 overnight stays. They also serve as a daytime drop-off with intensive case management. They offer necessary supplies to those who come in, and have served over 6,000 meals. They offer a place for youth to wash clothes, take a shower, and get a sleeping bag. They also have a charging station for teens with phones. In addition, they offer mental health counseling and other medical services, including dental care.

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Though Youth Futures is for any homeless teens, about fifty percent of those who are homeless in Utah are "not straight," says Kristen Mitchell. The number one reason teens are homeless is "family discord," including religious discord. Youth Futures works with the guidelines of "The Family Acceptance Project" to help parents learn to better deal with their child's sexuality within different religious perspectives. Their license requires Youth Futures to call parents within 8 hours of a youth being placed with them. Youth Futures reports an 85% rate of resolving family conflict and returning teens to safe homes. Less than 1% of teens return to the facility after they have been helped. Some teens need help finishing high school or finding a way to college through Weber State University, which is where Kristen Mitchell received her degree in social work. Weber State has been very supportive of Ogden Youth Futures.

In addition to word-of-mouth from homeless youth to homeless youth, Ogden Youth Future seeks to make itself known through fliers and contacts from adults who are aware of the needs of homeless youth. They also take supplies to the homeless youth where they are at, including canned goods and blankets to trailheads and other camping sites.

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52% of the LGBT+ teens who are homeless say they have experienced suicidal ideation, and counseling is one of the services Youth Futures provides them. There is a 24/7 therapist on call to help with youth who are immediately suicidal, and depression counseling for the many youth who experience this. Hope Community Health Center is a partner for Youth Futures in this and in other medical concerns for the homeless youth.

Homeless youth are particularly vulnerable because many are out on their own for the first time, have never been hungry, and are not aware of the dangers of being on the street, including human trafficking. Some are so desperate that they are willing to trade almost anything for a chance to have a warm place to stay, a bed, and food. Ogden Youth Futures aims to first deal with a crisis situation, then offer aid, then help youth think about the future and preventing bad outcomes then. Mitchell says, "I'm passionate about helping these youth, I'd love to be able to take away their pain and their struggles. I know that is unlikely, but we can be a stopping point on their journey, a stepping stone on their path...maybe give them a resource that turns out to change their life. We save lives every single day...that's what this is all about."

Voya has just recently opened a similar youth shelter in Salt Lake City and there will also be a shelter in Provo for LGBT teens and their families across the street from the Provo City Center Temple.