Four of the state’s top young poets competed in a Champions’ Slam last week to raise funds for the first homeless youth shelter in Utah.
The Champions’ Slam, in which all competitors must have won at least one poetry slam before or have had their works published, was organized by Weber State students, Westminster’s Slam Poetry Club and the non-profit group Wasatch Wordsmiths.
The benefit grew out of a Weber State social work class. Student Kristen Mitchell, founder of Youth Futures, a homeless shelter for youths, told the class of her project to address the growing problem of Utah’s homeless youths.
Mitchell bought a house at 2760 Adams Ave. in Ogden with her partner in August and has since been renovating the building and fundraising for the program. Their goal is to have the house ready to accept homeless youth by Jan. 1. Mitchell said Youth Futures’ yearly budget is $405,000 and her classmates have helped raised tens of thousands of dollars to contribute to the cause.
“They have been absolutely amazing. It wouldn’t have been where it’s at without them,” Mitchell said.
The class, taught by Professor Barrett Albert Troy Bonella, requires students to develop a project that will make a social change in the community. Carlos Palomo, a senior and one of Mitchell’s classmates, said 90 percent of the class decided to do their project on Mitchell’s group.
“The most important goal,” said Palomo, “is bringing awareness.”
While other students from the class are working on getting funds, grants or products from places like Home Depot, Palomo thought that an annual Poetry Slam to support Youth Futures suited the cause particularly well. Many of the slam poets have experienced homelessness at a some point in their lives, he said.
“Poetry slams in general are about speaking about rights, activism, breaking stereotypes and barriers,” Palomo said. “So I thought it was a good combination to bring homeless youth, as well as the LGBTQ and the poetry slam community together because many of them have common experiences.”
Palomo’s brother Willy, a student at Westminster College and member of both Wasatch Wordsmiths and Westminster’s Slam Poetry Club, said the groups were thrilled to be a part of the event.
Many people don’t realize that there isn’t a place for the homeless youths because of an old Utah law that prohibits underage children from staying overnight at adult shelters.
R.J. Walker, vice president of Wasatch Wordsmiths and winner of the Champions’ Slam, said he was shocked when he found out Utah didn’t have a youth shelter.
Kids whose parents kick them out or are abusive have nowhere else to go, especially in Utah where the winters are really cold, he said.
“Having an overnight shelter for youth so they can survive and then get back up on their feet and be productive again is incredibly important,” Walker said.
Over 5,000 youths face homelessness in Utah annually. Carlos Palomo said it’s hard to keep track of how many homeless youths there actually are because they may be homeless for only a few months then return to their families and later get kicked out again.
“It’s a very up and down kind of process,” he said. Palomo hopes that an overnight shelter will help to better track homeless youths.
Many of the homeless youths in Utah are made up of LGBTQ teens because of Utah’s conservative culture that views homosexuality as an issue, several organizers said.
“We do live in a society where the privileged heterosexual community views it as something negative and something bad, so they kind of oust them away from the community,” Palomo said. “There’s an ignorance about homosexuality and people who are not heterosexual.”
Bonella agreed, adding that there are still a lot of families in Utah who just won’t accept their children being homosexual.
During the intermission, Walker announced that he had been homeless when he was 19 after he returned home early from his LDS mission. His parents were upset because he did not complete the mission.
“My mom threw me out of the house. I was on the streets for a week, nowhere to go,” Walker said, “because I came home from my mission early, brought shame to my family that way.”
He thinks parents from this conservative culture get extreme about specific beliefs, especially homosexuality, and become psychologically and verbally abusive.
“That’s not a healthy environment for a teenager, so they either leave on their own or get thrown out,” Walker said.
This is why the social work students and slam poetry organizations were excited to help.
“It was really cool to see something (finally) being done about the homeless youth,” Willy Palomo said.
Bonella said slam poetry was a great way to raise money for homeless youth, partly because so many of the poems were about social justice and community.
“It’s almost like poetry is putting in words and feelings that drive social workers, and that’s what all of this is about,” Bonella said. “It’s about feeling passionate about something and trying to make a difference.”
Weber State sophomore, Maryvic Ruiz, a poet herself, came to the event out of curiosity. She wasn’t aware that there wasn’t a homeless shelter for youths before, and she wants to see homeless youths have a place.
Ruiz was impressed to discover that Youth Futures was founded by a Weber State student.“That’s really wonderful,” she said. “I honestly never expected a student to come up with something like this.” Ruiz called the contest “refreshing.”
Slam poetry gives people a voice, Walker said.
“All art is activism, and slam poetry is very much rooted in social activism, social justice as well as a calling out of social issues,” Walker said. “It’s poetry for the common people and the common people’s issues.”