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Advocates ask Utah Legislature to help fund teen centers for homeless students

The Policy Project launched its current teen center project campaign — an effort to aid Utah high schoolers who lack basic necessities or who are at-risk — at the state Capitol Wednesday. The nonprofit asked the Legislature to participate in a public-private partnership to provide funding for the campaign.

The Policy Project launched its current teen center project campaign — an effort to aid Utah high schoolers who lack basic necessities or who are at-risk — at the state Capitol Wednesday. The nonprofit asked the Legislature to participate in a public-private partnership to provide funding for the campaign. (Ashley Fredde, KSL.com)


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SALT LAKE CITY — A local nonprofit is asking the Utah Legislature to help high schools across the state establish teen centers to support students struggling with basic needs.

There has been a 34% increase in students experiencing homelessness since 2020, according to state data. Nearly 15,500 students are classified as homeless and lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.

Other students who may not face homelessness do face other barriers or have basic needs that aren't being unmet — with 1 in 3 students being considered economically disadvantaged and qualifying for free or reduced lunch.

"Utah is an incredible state and it's our job, all of us, to make it even better," Emily Bell McCormick, president of the Policy Project, said Wednesday during a rally at the state Capitol. "Not better for just us in this room, but better for those who can't be in this room. We're talking about some issues that keep people out of this room and more specifically keeping teens from going to class. Too many of our kids are facing poverty and mental health issues. We want to intercept these issues while our kids are in high school. We can hopefully prevent long-term homelessness and severe mental health struggles."

The Policy Project is proposing that the Utah Legislature contribute to a public-private partnership to fund teen centers at high schools across the state, in collaboration with private donors like the Larry H. and Gail Miller Family Foundation and the Hunstman Foundation.


We walked into an alley near the motel where we'd been staying. ... We sat by a smelly dumpster. My two little sisters started to say they were hungry and tired. So I dressed them in the two jackets that were in the bag that I packed our stuff in. They soon fell asleep and crawled up by my legs.

–A student


The new campaign was unveiled at the rally at the Capitol on Wednesday, with over 100 people in attendance signing letters to legislators urging approval.

To fully encapsulate the need for teen centers beyond statistics, McCormick shared stories of teens affected by poverty or homelessness.

"The worst thing about my situation is I don't like people knowing I don't have a place because there's a lot of stigma attached to it," one student said. "That's the worst. I'm a young man. There are girls in school I might want to talk to; how do I tell them that I'm staying in a shelter? I don't tell anyone."

"We walked into an alley near the motel where we'd been staying," another student said. "It was pitch black outside, so we sat by a smelly dumpster. My two little sisters started to say they were hungry and tired. So I dressed them in the two jackets that were in the bag that I packed our stuff in. They soon fell asleep and crawled up by my legs."

The centers can be created by "repurposing existing, underutilized space within the high schools and by dedicating space for these services within newly built high schools," according to a statement from the Policy Project.

The spaces are meant to be adaptable to their communities but can feature services such as:

  • A food pantry
  • Laundry facilities
  • Shower and toiletry kits
  • A family advocate worker
  • Connection to other community resources
  • Space for student regulation of mental health needs

While advocates recognize many of these services are available outside of schools, the nonprofit notes that often it is difficult for teens or children to navigate the resources and they require outside transportation to do so.

"These would benefit every student, regardless of income level, with a focus on those most at risk. And there are an increasing number of Utah K-12 students who are struggling to meet their basic needs due to circumstances beyond their control, a significant drop in affordable housing, rapid inflation, wage stagnation, as well as job insecurity and mental health challenges experienced by the adults who care for them. We all have felt these things," McCormick said.

The initiative is focused on a statewide approach, funding teen centers across counties. The nonprofit notes that the need expands beyond Salt Lake County with many of the counties with the highest percentage of economically disadvantaged students being rural counties — Carbon (45%), Duchesne (41%), Emery (51%), Grand (43%), Millard (47%), Piaute (58%), San Juan (99.6%), Sanpete (47%), Sevier (45%) and Wayne (42%).

"This is going to be a big project. We want to help create access to that funding and ensure that every high school in Utah that can build a place like this has the resources to do it. We want to ensure that there's fairness and equity across the state from Duchesne to Cache to Jordan to Moab," said Mary Catherine Perry, director of policy for the Policy Project.

"We have an opportunity and a responsibility to build change, where we learn and we need you and we need the support of our state leaders and we can do this together with our schools and with each other."

The campaign has garnered support from Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson and Utah Senate Pres. Stuart Adams, who both spoke at the campaign's unveiling.

"One of the things I asked my colleagues to do every day is not just think about the decisions we make today, but what can we do today that's going to affect the future generation people that are going to be the leaders of tomorrow," Wilson said.

"We can fund projects and that's one of the things we're asked to do. So we want to fund the construction of these teen centers. But teen centers, they're not about walls, they're not about bricks, they're not about things, teen centers are about people," Adams added.

For more information regarding the Policy Project and its campaigns, visit its website.

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Utah LegislatureUtah homelessnessUtah K-12 educationUtahPoliticsEducation
Ashley Fredde covers human services and and women's issues for KSL.com. She also enjoys reporting on arts, culture and entertainment news. She's a graduate of the University of Arizona.

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