Volunteers of America: Homeless Resources and More

Nationally, youth who identify as lesbian, gay,  bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning make up 40 percent of the homeless youth population. In Utah, that number is higher, coming in at 42 percent last fiscal year and 41 percent this year.

Volunteers of America, Utah would like to see that number reach zero. For years, the group has operated a number of programs for teens and young adults on the streets including the Homeless Youth Resource Center, the Homeless Outreach Program and a transition home for girls age 16–19.

“We’re planning to draft a five-year plan to significantly reduce the number of youth that will end up on the street,” said Zach Bale, vice president of External Relations at Volunteers of America, Utah, and the former director of the Homeless Youth Resource Center, which serves youth age 16–21. VOA, he explained, has joined forces with the Utah Pride Center, Salt Lake County Youth Services, Valley Mental Health and a number of other agencies to form the Salt Lake County Task Force to End Youth Homelessness.

“Our conclusion is that housing, employment and education are the three pillars to successful youth programming,” Bale continued. “We also know there’s a need for emergency shelters [for homeless youth] in the community and enough transitional and affordable housing. We know we don’t have that, and the key is making that available.”

But while VOA serves homeless queer youth every day by giving them meals, necessities and a safe facility to shower and attend classes, the organization does much more for Utahns. VOA, Utah is actually an umbrella covering not only homeless outreach services for youth and adults, but detoxification, senior and community enhancement services as well as counseling for drug and alcohol addiction and domestic violence.

And, said Bale, the organization is always looking for better ways to serve minority populations, including members of Utah’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community—especially segments of that community who are often under-served or ignored. For example, when VOA began encountering a number of transgender clients at its homeless outreach program, Bale said the organization created an internal group to discuss how to best address transgender and gender variant clients’ concerns. These included, said Bale, whether to place transgender people in men or women’s adult detoxification facilities, and what criteria to base that decision on.

“A couple of our clients asked us to look deeper,” he said. “We hadn’t had those hard conversations internally and our clients made us realize that we weren’t prepared.”

Bale said VOA called several “progressive shelters” in San Francisco and asked how they provided assistance to transgender clients, especially in such areas as accessing public shower facilities.

“I think we as an agency respect and want to serve people as they identify,” said Bale. “The long story short is we’ve started talking to all our programs to make sure we are inclusive in every way. We’ve had two [transgender women] clients now go through our center for women and children.”

Although Bale said he is not certain how many lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer clients have accessed the VOA’s programs, he noted that all of them are open to the community. These include its senior programs in Davis, Emory and Carbon counties and its Cornerstone Counseling Center, which provides mental health services to individuals and families dealing with substance abuse and domestic violence concerns. The center is particularly aimed at assisting low-income Utahns and those who face barriers to accessing help because of lack of transportation.

“One of the benefits of our agency is that we have an entire continuum of programs,” said Bale. “We could see someone on the street and link them up with the counseling center and case management, and then link them with housing and treatment.”

VOA also offers two detoxification treatment programs for people in the broader Salt Lake County community who want help with issues pertaining to drug and alcohol addiction: the Adult Detox Center for homeless and low-income men and women looking to detoxify from drug or alcohol use, and the Center for Women & Children, a residential facility for homeless women with children. This program also seeks to help residents transition from homelessness after they have worked through addictions.

“There are waiting lists for almost all levels of treatment,” said Bale, noting that VOA is the largest recipient of Salt Lake County’s substance abuse prevention and treatment dollars. But while several of VOA’s programs get government help, Bale added that the growing number of people seeking their services means that the organization is always in need of donations.

“Any human service agency, I think, has seen an increase [in people needing help],” said Bale. “In terms of money we’ve seen a decrease in foundation money, because they took big hits in the recession.” However, he noted that individual and in-kind donations have remained steady, and that he hopes they will throughout this season.

“Some people have said, ‘I can’t give money, but I can give time or things,’” he added, noting that VOA, Utah is always in need of items. These include men’s and women’s underwear and sweatpants, deodorant, bath towels, flip flops, backpacks and spiral-bound notebooks. Currently, the Homeless Youth Resource Center and the Homeless Outreach Program are most in need of tents, bus passes, men’s boxers and briefs (sizes medium and large), winter coats, thermal underwear (men’s large and extra large) and gift cards to Smith’s, Target, Old Navy and fast food restaurants.

For more information about VOA’s programs and on how to donate, visit voaut.org.

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