OGDEN, Utah -- Advocates for those who are homeless said there are an estimated 5,000 people in Utah under the age of 18 with no place to call home, and it’s estimated 300 to 600 young people are homeless in the Ogden area alone.
A distribution center serving homeless youth opened in Ogden this week to help provide support and supplies for the homeless population in the area, as current state laws prevent providing shelter to homeless youth under the age of 18.
Dotti Wilkerson and her husband Ron are with Summit Chapel's outreach efforts in Ogden, and she said as they learned more about the challenges faced by homeless youth they felt inspired to do something. She said their chapel's pastor, Tim Lewis, has been very passionate about the cause. She said the outreach center is "his baby."
“They're left, pretty much, to live under bridges,” she said. “They are living in parks, winter is coming, and so the need became very apparent that we needed to do something... They are children that have been kicked out of their houses for various reasons, or abuse, different reasons such as that."
Wilkerson said she is alarmed about how few options there are for juveniles who are homeless.
“Teenagers under 18 are not allowed in any of the homeless shelters in Utah because it's more dangerous for them to go there than it is for them under the bridge,” Wilkerson said.
The first 48 hours for a teen without shelter is the most critical, Wilkerson said.
"If they're not taken care of in that first 48 hours, that's when the drug dealers start to get a hold of them and start drawing them in," she said. "[They say,] 'Oh, I have a place for you to live. You can come stay here.' And that's how the sex offenders and sex-traffickers and everyone else are out to get these kids. It's serious."
About 40 percent of the homeless youth in the Ogden are estimated to be part of the LGBT community, Wilkerson said.
“A lot of these kids are kicked out for religious reasons," she said. "That it doesn’t fit with their religious beliefs, so families have just kicked them out.”
Local churches, businesses and volunteers have pitched in to provide a supply of basic necessities for those who are homeless. The items include hygiene kits, blankets, basic food, sleeping bags, and winter clothing like coats, gloves, hats and scarves. A member of the chapel's congregation even built a box to take the collections.
Wilkerson said: "It's been filled, we've come here some days and we opened it and just both my husband and I are were in tears one day because... brand new coats. Brand new coats."
The items are being stored at the chapel's outreach center, 585 39th Street in Ogden, and homeless youth are welcome to come by the location on Saturdays between noon and 4 p.m. Wilkerson said they are there to offer love, not question the motives of those who come for help.
“We’ve been asked… ‘Well what if they take a coat and go sell it?’” she said. “Well, in Matthew 24 it says: ‘If you do this unto the least of these my brethren, you do it unto me.’ And so when we hand out, through Christ’s name, and what they do with it, that’s up to them. That’s between them and their savior…. All we do is give out the love we have to share.”
Wilkerson said that providing shelter for those under 18 would require changes to Utah law, and Wilkerson said there are advocates working to make those changes.
“These children are out here, they need our help,” Wilkerson added.
Fore more information about Summit Chapel, visit their website.