As we work toward ending homelessness, policymakers at every level of government must consider the unique challenges of young people who exit a system of care with little or no housing options available to them. —Katherine O’Regan
WEST VALLEY CITY — Recently, Faaita Alofipo briefed state lawmakers about what it's like to be a homeless young adult.
The committee room fell hush as she described how she had recently lived, her state of mind.
“I was in a dark, cold and lonely place, literally. I would spend my nights sleeping on a bathroom floor at a park. I had nothing to eat and no way of feeding myself. I was always tired and hungry," said Alofipo, 21, addressing the Utah Legislature's Child Welfare Legislative Oversight Panel.
She also couch surfed with friends, but "I lost a lot of friends by doing that."
A friend from church knew about Salt Lake County Youth Services' Milestone program and encouraged Alofipo to apply.
Since March, Alofipo has lived in an apartment the Milestone program leases from the Housing Authority of the County of Salt Lake. The program also provides intensive case management to help homeless young adults ages 18-21 become self-sufficient.
A young woman who said she felt "stuck in this endless torment of living for nothing" now has plans to finish high school, go to college and one day open her own business.
"Every beautiful thing that has happened to me is due to this beautiful program right here," she said.
Alofipo is among a small of number of formerly homeless youths in Salt Lake County who through government programs or nonprofit organizations obtain housing. Unlike many homeless youths, she was never in the state foster care system. She became homeless after her parents split up.
An accurate count of homeless youths is difficult to nail down, but it is known that about 200 youths 18-21 age out of the state's foster care system each year, according to the Utah Division of Child and Family Services. The vast majority of those youth exit the system by 19.
"Two years after leaving care, we see that 35 percentage of our youth do become homeless. That's a very high percentage," said Charri Brummer, deputy director of DCFS.
Nationwide, 25,000 youths age out of foster care each year, according to federal statistics.
Nick Nahalewski entered foster care as an older teen. He thought he could live with his older brother once he aged out of care.
That didn't work out, "so I was just homeless, sleeping wherever I could, sometimes on friends' couches, sometimes on the ground. It was never easy, especially being around people who aren’t really doing anything with their lives."
Nahalewski now lives in Milestone's home for young men, which he describes as a "blessing."
"Without it, I'd still be homeless or I’d be in jail or I’d be dead," he said.
Nahalewski now has his ID, a job and a car, things he thought he'd never have, he said.
Alofipo and Nahalewski are among a small minority of homeless youths 18-21 who live in supported housing in Utah and nationwide, according to a new study by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“All the available research underscores that these young people are too often faced with the hard choice of being precariously housed or living on our streets or in our shelters,” Katherine O’Regan, HUD’s assistant secretary for policy development and research, said in a HUD news release.
“As we work toward ending homelessness, policymakers at every level of government must consider the unique challenges of young people who exit a system of care with little or no housing options available to them.”
Less than half of all public housing authorities administering HUD’s Familiy Unification Program serve youths. Instead, this form of rental assistance is used to help families involved in the child welfare system, the study says.
Mina Koplin, manager of the county's Milestone transitional living program, said the county teams up with private and public partners to provide housing to a small number of homeless youths in the valley.
Young women live in housing units leased to the program by the Housing Authority of the County of Salt Lake. Its young men are housed in a house owned by Good Shepherd Lutheran Church. The program is funded by a five-year grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Meanwhile, Volunteers of America-Utah operates transition homes for homeless young women and young men, the latter opening last month. It can house 14 homeless young men ages 18-24.
The nonprofit organization has provided services to homeless youths for 15 years, through its street outreach, resource center and transitional housing programs. It serves about 1,000 homeless youths a year through the three programs, VOA-Utah's president and CEO Kathy Bray says.
The nonprofit recently received a conditional-use permit to build an emergency shelter in Salt Lake City to further serve homeless teens and young adults, she said.
Collaboration is key to these programs, Koplin said. Unlike other states, Utah agencies that serve youths, provide services to homeless people and manage public housing are often at the same table attempting to better meet the needs of clients.
"We're having the conversation, but (the number of available beds is) all very small compared to the population that has a need," Koplin said.
Homeless youths need housing to be safe and meet their basic needs, she said. It is easier for them to reach other goals such as obtaining identification documents, completing their GEDs and finding work if they have a place to come home to at night, Koplin said.
Milestone participants are required to work on personal goals and abide by rules of conduct — no drugs, alcohol, violence, weapons, explosives, pets, overnight guests or criminal conduct.
Jen Pomroy, house manager for Milestone's young women's program, regularly checks in with Alofipo to ensure she following house rules and to guide her to resources she needs.
Alofipo's case manager Cydnie LaCour helps her keep on track with her goals, offers referrals and serves as a mentor.
Alofipo has learned to trust the small circle of adults who are advocating for her, she said.
"She's just blossomed at a very rapid rate," LaCour said.
Alofipo has high praise for the Milestone team, too.
"It's meant a lot to me to have really supportive people around me. These are the type of people I want to have on my team. I'm grateful for that," she said.
"It helps that you are so incredibly loveable," said LaCour, wiping a tear.