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To begin with, they need a warm, safe place. They need food and clothing, and perhaps some counseling.

And then, they can learn to be self-sufficient.

Young and homeless, they tell life stories that can be troubling and spill out in pieces with parts missing, like an unfinished jigsaw puzzle.

At the Volunteers of America's homeless youth shelter and resource center at 888 S. 400 West in Salt Lake City, young people can begin to gain stability and seek education and job training. And hopefully they can launch on a trajectory toward a happy, healthy life, said Sarah Strang, VOA's director of youth services.

"We watch them become stable," she said. "And they have to do that before they can move on with their lives."

The $6 million, 20,000-square-foot facility opened in June to serve homeless people ages 15 to 22. The 30-bed shelter also serves a similar number of young people who don't live on site, but could be on the street or couch surfing from place to place. It offers 24/7 support as well as education, counseling and job training.

The shelter operates on a budget of $1.6 million — 70 percent of which comes from private donations.

Phillip Grant IV, 22, walked into the VOA shelter in June. Originally from Fort Worth, Texas, he's looking for job.

Before entering the shelter, he was living in his 1992 BMW that he bought for $600. He named it Gina, after a character in the "Martin" TV series of the 1990s.

Everyone in Grant's family is in Lone Star State, except his brother, who is on his way to the Utah State Prison.

Grant came to Utah to join Job Corps, a residential vocational training program for economically disadvantaged youth. At the Job Corps center in Clearfield, he trained as a certified nursing assistant. But Grant, who is African-American, said he's had trouble finding employment.

"A lot of people shunned me," he said. "But this place nurtures you and helps you keep warm and eat ... It's like having a second set of parents."

Grant is polite, has an infectious smile and doesn't let on that times have been tough.

"Life is a journey," he said. "I'm doing way better — I feel better mentally and physically than I have in six months."

In the second week of November, he left the shelter and now lives with 13 others in the VOA's young men's transitional home. Nonetheless, he visits the resource center for its programs, that which include help finding housing and jobs.

It also offers programs such as "Possibilities," where young people learn to cope with difficult situations; a class in basic financial responsibility; and workshops on topics such as art, music and dance. Some of the courses are taught by volunteers.

"Since I came to VOA, I've worked with youth advocates," Grant said. "I would like to go into that. I would like life to be everybody treating each other with respect."

VOA coordinates with other organizations and volunteers in an effort to be a partner in the community.

"The community is very important to us," Strang said. "It's difficult to get out of homelessness. None of our clients would prefer to be here. But we work with them to break down barriers."

A 19-year-old woman who identified herself as Paris carries a serious, determined expression.

She didn't get along with either one of her divorced parents, who live in Ogden. She's been in and out of foster care and has had substance abuse issues. On one occasion, she went to jail for a day.

Paris joined but later left Job Corps because she felt bullied there.

"It's hard," she said. "I get in my moments when I get sad."

The VOA has been a sanctuary, Paris said, where she can take a break from the turmoil of her life and get a fresh start. "They say this is a resource center and they really help you."

Paris recently landed a job at Burger King. She says she's saving up so that she and her boyfriend, who is currently in Job Corps, can move to Texas when he graduates.

With 30 to 60 young people coming and going, the place can be boisterous, Strang said. And the first six months has been a learning experience for the staff. But they continue to fine-tune the rules for visitors and residents:

If someone is acting out, he or she is asked to leave. They can return after they calm down.

No loitering is allowed around the building — clients can either come in or go elsewhere.

Males and females are separated at night. Lights out is 10:30 p.m.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served at the center and diners are expected to clean up after themselves.

When they opened the facility, Strang said, they didn't recognize the need that exists for such facilities. The VOA shelter and resource center was full by the end of the first week. To date, it has served 372 young people.

All in all, it's a bright, cheery place that stands in stark contrast to The Road Home Shelter downtown, which houses 1,100 people.

Kent Clair, 19, is from Orem. At least, that's where his parents live — Clair has been in and out of institutions since he was 13. Now, as an adult, he doesn't get along with his parents.

By contrast, he feels at home at the VOA facility.

Clair is exuberant and witty and loves to sing. He often breaks into song at the shelter. He wants to go to cosmetology school and learn hair styling.

"I like it here at the VOA shelter," he said. "If I have a problem, I can talk to someone [on the staff]. Sometimes that's all you need."

He is planning on getting a job and housing before seeking further training.

Like other young clients at the VOA, he displays a remarkable resilience and the twinkle in his eyes seems to say: Things are going to be all right.

For more information on VOA, visit

Help us help homeless youth

The Salt Lake Tribune is inviting readers to help us support Volunteers of America, a nonprofit that helps homeless teens, this holiday season.

Starting on Black Friday, Tribune staff will accept donations from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the Volunteers of America Youth Resource Center, 888 S. 400 West, Salt Lake City. Drop off contributions on Fridays, Nov. 25, Dec. 2, Dec. 9 and Dec. 16. The center is seeking donations of warm clothing, blankets and cash.

For each donation worth $25, a donor will receive a raffle ticket to enter into a drawing for one of four prizes: A signed Pat Bagley print, a screening party with Tribune TV critic Scott Pierce watching a new television series of your choice, lunch with columnist Robert Kirby or a behind-the-scenes Utah Jazz experience, including a spot at the postgame press conference.

Find details about the prizes and the center's needs at