Utah's First Privately Funded Homeless Shelter for Teens Opens its Doors in Ogden

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OGDEN — Six years ago, when Kristen Mitchell started thinking about opening a temporary shelter for homeless and unaccompanied youths, she knew it was an enormous undertaking.

“For most of that time, it was such a big, crazy idea I didn’t dare talk about it,” she said.

But she was nagged by the knowledge that there was a desperate need for a youth shelter in northern Utah.

As a single mother,

Mitchell had on occasion searched the streets for her eldest child during stormy periods in his youth.

Her life partner, Scott Catuccio, had been a homeless youth himself.

Then there were the telephone calls on the Pride Empathy Hotline that Mitchell launched in 2011. Nationally, some 40 percent of homeless youths identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

All things were pointing to the goal of opening a youth shelter, she said, though there were many hurdles to clear before achieving that end.

Mitchell had been a small-business owner for 20 years, including owning a gallery in Park City, but the economic downturn took a toll on her businesses.

So she decided it was a good time to go to college and pursue her dream.

"I didn't have a degree at all. I graduated in May with a degree in social work," she said.

The practical and academic knowledge Mitchell gained was instrumental in working through the long process to open Youth Futures shelter home. Her fellow students and professors at Weber State University have been some of her staunchest supporters.

Before she could do anything, the Utah Legislature would have to change state law to give the shelter the flexibility it needed to work with runaway or unaccompanied youths. That happened in 2014.

Under the amended state law, shelter workers and volunteers must still notify parents of their child's whereabouts. After 48 hours, they must notify the Utah Division of Child and Family Services.

Mitchell searched for a suitable location for a long time, finally finding a house in a residential neighborhood that once was a group home. The windows were broken and someone had booted in the door.

But with a little tender loving care and a lot of paint, Mitchell knew the house would work perfectly for Youth Future's needs. She and Catuccio closed on the purchase in August.

Since then, the shelter at 2760 Adams Ave. has been "a revolving door" of people offering financial support, donations of bedding, clothing, toiletries, food and furnishings.

Mitchell is its executive director and Catuccio is president of the privately funded, nonprofit organization's board of directors, and oversees IT projects such as installing its security system and setting up the computer lab for the youth.

The shelter, which has 14 beds for youths ages 12-17, opened in mid-February.

Just one of the beds was occupied on a visit last week, although Mitchell said two more youths were expected by nightfall.

One of the most significant challenges of operating a shelter is cultivating trust with a population that has left their family homes due to conflict, abuse or other difficulties with adults in their lives, she said.

Youth Futures also operates as a drop-in center, where youths can get a meal, take a shower, wash their clothes or pick up things they need such as food, clothing or a sleeping bag.

"We're also putting together a street outreach team," she said.

The goal, Mitchell said, is to develop an understanding and reputation among homeless and unaccompanied youths. At some point, they will feel comfortable enough to stay in the shelter, where they can work with staff to continue their education, reunite with their families if it is safe and appropriate, and work on other goals.

Homeless and unaccompanied youths are highly vulnerable so it is important that they spend as little time on the streets as possible, she said.

"They’re more likely to fall prey to something that’s a scam or trafficking than an adult would, especially when they’re newly homeless and they’re super trusting," Mitchell said. "They get hungry for the first time in their life, and someone offers them a ride and a bed and what they have to trade for it. It’s awful things they trade."

There are many reasons youths leave their homes. Mitchell said family dynamics can become stressed over disagreements over household rules, religion or other expectations. Some youths have experienced abuse and neglect.

One of the most heart-wrenching issues she encounters are youths who have come out to their families regarding their sexuality, she said. Youth Futures hopes to help youth — and their families — gain acceptance and move forward.

"If you need an adjustment period, if you need some time to just be away and you're saying, 'I can’t look at my kid right now,' they can come here and they can stay here during that time," Mitchell said.

Youth Futures has ties to the Family Acceptance Project, which can help families work through their issues, Mitchell said. Youths who do not feel accepted by their families are more likely to experience homelessness, abuse drugs and attempt suicide, she said.

"Even if you cannot have your kid in your home, you are still, as a parent, responsible to find them a safe place. You can’t just kick them out on the street. You have to find them some place that is safe," she said.

Mitchell wants youths and trusted adults to know that Youth Futures is ready to help 24/7.

"This is a safe place and they can trust us," she said. "We are here to advocate for the kids."

Mitchell said Youth Futures shelter home is a community resource that will continue to need the community's support. Lawn signs encourage contributions in the upcoming Love UT Give UT day of giving on Thursday.

"We really need to be able to sustain this. Anything helps," she said.

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