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SALT LAKE CITY — Senate Minority Leader Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, said he had no idea how serious a problem teenage homelessness was when he was contacted about the plight of a 17-year-old girl who fled her home.
Davis said he realized the Legislature needed to take a look at the issue after talking to authorities about the girl being forced by police to return home, even though she told officers she was afraid to live there.
"I think the issue, the overall issue, is the number of children thrown out of the home or run away from home," Davis said. "It's a very vulnerable population that tends to be growing."
He brought the issue to the Child Welfare Legislative Oversight Panel on Tuesday, with testimony from Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank and Utah Division of Child and Family Services officials.
Burbank said there needs to be facilities where law enforcement can refer teenagers who are no longer living at home so they can get help sorting out their situation, including how to keep from being returned to a troubled home.
Now, homeless teenagers end up in jail or back on the street, where he said they are "perfect candidates" to be exploited, especially by prostitution rings.
"Law enforcement is the front door," the police chief told the panel, urging an alternative to putting homeless youths in the criminal justice system. "There needs to be a solution on the back end. We are not the solution."
Jennifer Larson, adolescent services coordinator for DCFS, said while there is a drop-in center operated by the Volunteers of America for homeless youths, they also need a shelter.
Existing shelters for adults "are scary," she said, and many young people prefer to sleep in lighted parking lots. Larson said there are efforts underway to provide safe places for homeless youths in Cache, Davis and Utah counties.
Rep. Rhonda Menlove, R-Garland, a member of the panel, said she's concerned that such shelters face the possibility of being accused of illegally harboring someone who is underage.
Menlove, who was meeting later Tuesday with Cache County residents interested in opening a shelter for homeless youths, said she wanted to help them avoid that situation.
"These are people who are well-meaning," she said.
Davis said with the problem extending into rural parts of the state, it's time to figure out how to protect both the teenagers living on their own and the people who want to help them.
"I think we have some energy and desire to try to get to this before it gets out of hand," the Senate leader said, warning that homeless youths are at risk for a life of antisocial behavior.
"Children this age, thrown out, it has an effect on them psychologically," Davis said. "That's a scar that is very, very hard to heal, to get them back in society and to be productive."
Burbank said after the meeting that many of the youths are victims who need help.
"I'll admit, law enforcement is not good in this arena. We're a one-size-fits-all — you're doing a crime, you go to jail," Burbank said, as opposed to offering assistance.
He said coming up with an alternative to relying on law enforcement to deal with homeless youths will save money.
"You consider social service options. They are much cheaper and a much better alternative," Burbank said.
The police chief said he's optimistic the issue will be addressed.
"It's a good thing we're talking about it," he said. "So there's always optimism there."