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Advocating for Homeless Youth

The following article, written by Assistant Attorney General Nicole Lowe, was originally published in the May/June issue of the Utah Bar Journal. It is reposted with the author’s permission. You can learn more about Lowe’s work in an article written in the Salt Lake Tribune here


by Nicole Lowe

by Nicole Lowe

You see them throughout the city, huddled in corners with their backpacks, sleeping bags, and a vacant expression.  At times you stumble across their tents and tarp lean-tos when you’re out for a walk in a park or paved trail hand in hand with a loved one. Have you ever wondered how these kids ended up on the streets or why they have nowhere to go?

Many people’s initial thought is the homeless (youth or otherwise) are homeless because they are lazy, drug addicts, and have serious mental health issues. This is a simplistic view of the problem and of people who find themselves homeless. Mental health concerns, substance abuse, and lack of motivation cut across cultures and socioeconomic class in Utah.

Youth who find themselves homeless are some of the most vulnerable and most valuable people we have in the state of Utah and across the nation.  One problem is most people don’t see them as such. Most people, walk right by with their head down, thinking “please don’t talk to me,” and “please don’t ask me for money.”  Passersby don’t make eye contact, and they definitely don’t speak with the youth.

Making a difference in the lives of homeless youth will not only change your life, but holds the potential to change the lives of thousands.  Any one of these kids could be the one who will propose an idea that will change global warming, reduce hunger among children in poverty, or create a solution to the struggles of inner city youth. They could become the doctor who saves the life of your grandchild or a teacher who makes effortless connections with children who have autism or downs syndrome.

You just don’t know what they are capable of and if you don’t do anything to help them, you will never find out. None of us will.

I know this hidden potential, because I was a homeless youth from the age of thirteen to sixteen. I had that vacant look. My experiences are not exceptional among homeless youth. I’ve struggled with depression.  I’ve been a high school dropout, drug addict, a victim of rape, a victim of domestic violence, a drug dealer, a member of a cult, and a runaway. I begged for money and slept in parks, behind bars, in boxes and under overpasses.

My story is terrifying and heart wrenching, but most of all it’s full of hope. I’ve turned what could have been a story ending with me strung out on drugs or dead, into something so much more.

I found myself pregnant after three years on the streets hitchhiking around the western United States following the Grateful Dead. The entire time I was pregnant my plan was to continue to chase the deadhead lifestyle only with a VW bus for the baby.

I was seventeen when my son was born, and my life changed. I wasn’t willing to put him at risk. I didn’t want him to live the same life I had been living for the past four years. I returned to high school and graduated in December 1998. I graduated from Salt Lake Community College with my associate’s degree in 2000 and from the University of Utah with my Bachelors in psychology in 2002.

From 2002 through 2005, I investigated child abuse and neglect cases for the Division of Child and Family Services (“DCFS”). In the autumn of 2005, I started at S.J. Quinney College of Law with a goal to become a child welfare attorney in the juvenile court. I graduated in 2008 and became an assistant attorney general in the child protection division representing DCFS when I was twenty-eight years old. As a single mother, I’ve raised two passionate and caring sons. My oldest son has successfully launched from home and began at the University of Utah. My youngest doesn’t miss an opportunity to stand up for strangers who are in need of assistance.  I’ve completed five 100-mile runs, five century cycling events, and two half ironmans. I’m working on an autobiography and other novels.

Most people would call my life a success, but my experiences and my education are a waste, if I cannot use them to change one person’s life for the better. I would willingly live it all again to change the course for one person who spends the night pulling a tarp tighter around their shoulders against the frigid wind and who hangs their head in shame because they had prostitute themselves for a place to stay the night before and will many times more.

It can take as little as one person acknowledging these youth and seeing them as valuable members of the human race to begin their journey to independence. Seventy-five percent of homeless youth drop out or will drop out of school. Fifteen percent of homeless girls will become pregnant.  Less than two percent of teen mother’s get a college degree by thirty. Homeless youth are seventy-five percent more likely to use controlled substances to deal with trauma and abuse. Fifty percent of youth, who experience rape, physical or sexual abuse will attempt suicide. Many of the street kids are trading sex for food, clothing, drugs or just a place to sleep at night.

Because of my experiences on the streets of Salt Lake City, Utah, I’ve partnered with the Volunteers of America (“VOA”) and Legal Aid Society to bring free legal services to the youth who call Salt Lake Country streets, foothills, and parks home.

The Street Youth Legal Clinic (“SYLC”), will provide free legal services to youth ages fifteen to twenty-three who are accessing VOA’s homeless youth resource center or the new overnight shelter scheduled to open in the Spring 2016.  VOA’s goal is to help youth overcome the legal barriers to them obtaining housing, employment, education or achieving their potential in any way.

The VOA Youth Resource Center will be twenty-thousand square feet and will have thirty beds available along with services youth need including an education center, mental health and substance abuse counseling, a food and clothing pantry, laundry, showers, housing assistance, employment assistance, and just normal social activities kids participate in today. These are basic needs all of us strive to give our children and many of us had as children.

These youth can become so much more than what we see huddle in corners, if we all fight for their chance to dream. I would go as far as to say they have the right to have their basic needs met and the chance to dream of what their future holds. Dreams, goals and ambition develop after our basic needs for shelter, food, and protection are met.

VOA’s Street Youth Legal Clinic’s mission is to remove legal barriers for homeless youth. Because of the age range of youth who access services through the VOA Youth Resource Center, legal issues span the juvenile courts, justice courts, district courts, bankruptcy courts, and federal courts.

Legal issues seen at the Street Youth Legal Clinic include immigration, emancipation, abortion,  juvenile expungement, adult expungement, adult protective orders, child protective orders,  dating violence protective orders, delinquency issues, run-away issues, unaccompanied minors from another state,  those fleeing polygamists community, human trafficking issues, adult criminal issues, child abuse, child neglect, dependency, marriage, custody, paternity, child support, housing, employment, bankruptcy, and disability law.

Youth end up on the streets for many different reasons and no story is the same as another. Some have been forced out of their homes and some made the decision that the street is safer than home. Another portion of these youth have aged out of the foster care system and have no family to teach them to live independently.

In their efforts to meet their basic needs for safety, food, and shelter, many youth become involved in high risk behaviors resulting in criminal charges and victimization through sex trafficking and violence. As a way to deal with past trauma and mental health, they turn to substance abuse and then drug dealing or prostitution. If they didn’t have trauma before they reached the streets, it finds them once they are on the streets.

Having outstanding criminal cases and prior convictions, can prevent youth from obtaining housing and employment. Active warrants can land them in jail, resulting in them getting fired from jobs and losing their housing and then they are back out on the streets. Youth who are sixteen and seventeen, are even more limited in housing and employment options due to their status as minors. Minors can’t enter into any contracts, open a bank account, or consent to their own medical treatment.

Without an advocate at their side when they stand before a judge, they agree to sentences and plead guilty just to get it over with regardless of whether their rights have been upheld. Without the support of an advocate, their belief in injustice and the propensity of the system to be against them proves to be too much and they fail to appear before the court. This results in a default judgement being entered against them or a warrant for their arrest being issued. They are trapped in a judicial revolving door.

The Street Youth Legal Clinic will be staffed by an attorney who will screen cases and assign them to volunteer attorneys who practice the particular type of law needed. The volunteer attorneys will then advocate for the youth and guide them through the court system until the resolution of the legal matter whenever possible.

SYLC has an advisory board managing decisions and financial allocation. SYLC has received grants from the Family Law Section, Juvenile Law Section, and Utah Bar Foundation. We are seeking additional funding to support the clinic and provide the youth with the chance they need to overcome the barriers standing before them. The minimum amount of funding we need for 2016 is near ten-thousand dollars.

SYLC will be working with the Division of Child and Family Services to assist youth aging out of the foster care system who, many times spend six months or more living on the streets due to the lack of any family support and mistrust of the system. Juvenile Justice Services is another agency we hope to join forces with to assist youth charged with crimes in the Juvenile Court and aging out. We will also work with Salt Lake City Justice Court where Judge John Baxter runs a homeless court designed to address the needs specific to this population. Ideally, a positive relationship will also develop between the SYLC and the district courts.

Most importantly, we are calling upon the legal community to volunteer to take cases giving these youth access to the judicial system. Most of the youth are suspicious and believe the worst about the judicial system and those involved in it. This is our opportunity to change that belief.

Our skills as compassionate advocates, will be challenged as our clients struggle through mental health issues, trauma, and substance abuse while we stand at their side before the courts and opposing parties fulfilling our duty to provide access to the courts for the under privileged members of our community. Attorneys who choose to become an advocate for this vulnerable population will be able to watch the transformation as the youth grow and realizes their potential to become whatever vision they hold in their heart.

To add your name to the growing list of volunteer attorneys or make any inquires, contact Nicole Lowe at Nicole.sylc@gmail.com. To make a donation to support the Street Youth Legal Clinic, go to www.voaut.org/home4teens, click on the Donate to Legal to guarantee your donation goes to help youth overcome their legal barriers. Thank you in advance for your generosity with your resources.

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