Home. For most of us that conjures up emotions and thoughts that are filled with comfort, warmth and a sense of belonging. But every day in the United States there are thousands of homeless youth (age 12 and older) who sleep in shelters, in cars or vacant buildings, with friends for one night at a time, even on the streets. Officially known as “unaccompanied youth,” these young people find themselves without a home for various reasons. Some have aged out of the foster care system, are escaping abuse or neglect, or have been kicked out by their families.
While it is difficult to get exact numbers, the estimates from 2015 indicate that 7% of the total homeless population in the United States is unaccompanied youth. That represents about 37,000 young people on a single night. 87% are between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four. 13% (over 4,800) are teens under the age of eighteen. As a parent of two teenagers, the thought of even one teenager or young adult sleeping on the streets is hard to bear.
In Salt Lake City homeless youth are finding hope and a place to belong. In May 2016, Volunteers of America opened a new 20,000 square foot Youth Resource Center. Able to house up to 30 homeless youth each night, the center is also able to feed up to 60 who are either homeless or at risk. With additional counseling and assistance programs available during the day, Volunteers of America is trying to break the cycle of youth homelessness in the Salt Lake Valley. They expect to serve about 800 teens this year.
But they can’t do it alone. With the task of feeding up to 60 youth three meals each day plus snacks, the Youth Resource Center in Salt Lake City is in need of volunteers. In fact, almost all meals at the shelter are provided and prepared by volunteers. Once a month, my small group in Park City packs sack lunches. A piece of fruit, a sandwich, some snacks and a small note of encouragement fill the brown bag and are then delivered to the shelter. Youth who have jobs or school use the lunches since they aren’t able to be at the shelter when lunch is served.
We can’t end homelessness in Utah or in the USA in a day, but we can take a day to volunteer at shelters that serve those in need. Whether it is donating food to a shelter or food bank, buying warm clothing, sorting donations or preparing and serving a meal, there are many ways that we can get involved. Search online for the name of the shelter closest to you and see what you can do to help. No gift is too small, and something as simple as a sack lunch can make a difference.