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They appear to be unlikely pals, until you learn that as teen­agers they spent years on the street.

Carolina Esera, 21, and Steven Strauss, 22, have another thing in common: Volunteers of America helped keep them alive during those dicey years.

The organization is also a place for camaraderie among disenfranchised youth. The pair met up again last week at the VOA's State Street drop-in center to get free backpacks filled with essential items, like toiletries and socks. Although Esera and Strauss now have places to live, they still rely on VOA for help, including how to get into school and how to find a job.

Like many homeless teens, Esera and Strauss escaped abusive households. Esera simply ran away, while Strauss found himself in and out of juvenile detention before striking out on his own.

VOA serves about 1,000 teen and young adult clients each year. About two-thirds of them have suffered physical or sexual abuse at home, said Zach Bale, external relations specialist.

The State Street center offers teens and young adults a place to shower, do laundry and eat lunch every day. They also have a food pantry.

The organization also has an active outreach program that scours the Salt Lake area to inform teens that VOA can help.

Like other homeless providers, VOA has suffered federal funding cuts due to sequestration. Its grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services was recently reduced by $150,000 — about 20 percent. Although a greater proportion of its budget is made up from private-sector grants, the cuts hurt, Bale said.

Listening to Esera and Strauss provides a picture of the vulnerability of homeless teens and young adults. They face daunting challenges, from drugs and violence to inclement weather and hunger. At times, teens and young adults on the street may even sell sex to get by, according to homeless advocates.

At 13, Esera was on the loose and using drugs whenever she could. That was her lifestyle.

"I've been coming here since I was about 13," she said of VOA. "Sometimes I come here to get stuff I need. They help me with diapers and sometimes clothes. They help me with food."

Two years ago, Esera had a child. She is not married and does not live with the father. But since then, she has been drug free, she said.

"I call it maybe a miracle. When I had my son, I made a promise to myself in the hospital while I was holding my son. It was either him or drugs," she recalled. "I chose him. Since that day, I haven't taken any drugs — period."

Esera, who is now attending Horizonte Instruction and Training Center and will complete her high school education in June, said she wants to go to college and pursue a career in the justice system.

"I'm building my life so I can show my kids what a parent is supposed to be," she said.

Each person walking into VOA has a unique story. But there are plenty of similarities in the lives of the young and homeless.

Strauss has seen a lot of the pitfalls of street life firsthand. He's had repeated run-ins with the law during his teen years and beyond. Although he has a high school diploma, landing a job with a criminal record is hard, he said.

"When people don't know what your life is like, it's dispiriting," he said. "It lets you know you're not worth anything."

Three months ago, with the help of VOA, he found an apartment at Palmer Court through its subsidized housing program. Now he's doggedly pursuing employment.

"Once the homeless can get a place to live, they can do things. They get motivated," he said. "That's what happened to me. I got motivated."

He has dreams of going to college and making a contribution to society. "I want to go to school. I want to be an engineer," he said. "I want to build things."

Hundreds of others like Esera and Strauss will push through the doors at VOA during the coming year, said CEO Kathy Bray. And they are all welcome.

"We find homeless youth and provide them with services. We can give them help and get them stabilized," she said. "But the only way we can solve the homeless youth problem is with the help of the community. And we have a very generous community."

Volunteers of America

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