Katt has a saying: "Concrete flows thicker than blood or water any day of the week." By blood, of course, she means the people she's related to, who by and large haven't been very reliable. As for the concrete, she's talking about the street. And by street, she means the sidewalks and the public plazas and the abandoned buildings that house Salt Lake City's homeless young people.
If you live on the street, say the kids who do, other street kids are your family. So it was fitting, on the eve of the most traditional of family holidays, that Katt and her friends shared a Thanksgiving meal Wednesday afternoon at the Homeless Youth Resource Center on State Street.
Dinner was served at 4 p.m. so that the last of the pies would be gone and the chores done before everybody was shooed out the door at 7. Because of funding problems, the Homeless Youth Resource Center is only open for eight daytime hours; after that it's back to the street, maybe to go couch surfing at the apartment of a friend of a friend, maybe to squat in a boarded-up warehouse, maybe to walk around all night, high on meth, trying to keep warm.
Official average age of those who gather each day at the center is 19 or 20, says Zachary Bale, director of outreach services for Volunteers of America, which runs the center. Some of the kids may be younger but lie about their age for fear of being reported to the Division of Child and Family Services, he says.
You don't "age out" of the center until you're 23. The "youth" in the center's name refers to development and education levels more than mere chronology, Bale explains. Some of the homeless at the center have addictions and mental-health issues, some are the product of unstable upbringings. Hardly any are the kind of bohemian street kids you might find in Seattle or Portland, rich kids just trying to be street kids, Bale says.
Some have run away from abusive or strict or neglectful families. Some have aged out of the foster-care system and don't know what to do next. And, frankly, some think the world owes them something, says a 21-year-old named Cara. "It's 'screw you, give me free stuff,"' she says. "That's harsh, but I was exactly the same way."
Cara is sitting in one of the back rooms of the center, near a poster of the young James Dean, another rebel without a cause. On the street, says Cara, the mindset is, "If you don't have to" pay bills, follow rules, do a 9 to 5 job "why do it?"
Cara says she's had enough of that, though. Now, she says, she wants to settle down with her boyfriend and raise the baby that's due next spring. Like other street kids who have moved on to living quarters with an actual address, she credits the Homeless Youth Resource Center with helping her learn to budget her money and maintain an apartment.
"They give you every skill you need to come out prosperous," says a 23-year-old named "Detour," who has aged out of the center but comes back for case management. Detour grew up with parents who were drug addicts. From age 6 to 9 he lived in a series of rundown downtown hotels and was sent out to panhandle during the day. After that it was a series of foster families. At 18 he started coming to the center.
"Once you've been on the street," says Katt, who has lived on her own starting at age 12 and is now 22, "it's 10 times harder to keep a job." It's a kind of cycle, sort of like drug abuse, she says. You start to climb out and then you slip back in. "If you haven't grown up with what's basic for society, then you don't know how to do it."
For Thanksgiving today, Detour plans to cook a dinner for maybe 15 or 20 street kids and former street kids at his new apartment. "There will be two turkeys, all your vegetables pretty much, spaghetti, ham," he says. But no one has ever taught him the safety tips for thawing a 12-pound bird. The turkeys are in the bathtub, he says. Not in cold water, just in the bathtub, and have been since Tuesday.Katt, too, will cook her first Thanksgiving dinner today, in the apartment she shares with her husband and baby. On Wednesday, the toddler was at the Resource Center gleefully twirling the glass disc in the microwave. Katt doesn't bring him to the center very often though, she says. "I don't want him to grow up thinking this lifestyle is something he wants to do."