Home for 'Lost Boys'

St. George shelter to help those outsted from FLDS communities

Deseret Morning News, Utah/July 30, 2007
By Ben Winslow

St. George -- The kids call it "the house just off Bluff."

The eight-bedroom home located just off Bluff Street doesn't have a formal name, but it will soon become a haven for some of the so-called "Lost Boys." They are teens who have either been kicked out or run away from Short Creek - the Fundamentalist LDS Church enclaves of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz.

"It'll work just right," says Ben, who asked that his last name not be used. He left the FLDS Church at 18.

Leaning against a door frame, he looked around, surveying the home's potential.

"This'll be good," he says.

Michelle Benward shows off the shelter with pride.

"This is our welcoming area," she says, walking briskly from one room into another.

"This will be a dining room."

Right now, the residence is empty. The only appliance is an old, beat-up stove.

"We're going to give kids a place to transition from one community into the next safely," she said.

Benward is the clinical director for New Frontiers for Families, a Garfield County-based nonprofit that helps provide social services for families in rural areas. Over the years, she has become more involved in championing the Lost Boys.

"I call them my kids,'" she says with a smile.

Coming together

Working with the Diversity Foundation, they have managed to put together this home. The shelter owes its existence to perseverance, determination and good fortune.

"It's kind of a strange mixture between government, nonprofits and people who just care," said Paul Murphy, the coordinator for the Utah Attorney General's Safety Net Committee, which provides services for people in and out of polygamy.

A wealthy man in the area purchased the residence and donated it to the nonprofits for the purpose of creating a sanctuary for the Lost Boys.

The home will mostly serve boys who otherwise have few services available to them.

Even the Utah attorney general's much-touted "Safety Net" is geared toward women leaving abusive or neglectful situations within polygamy.

"The girls still have other resources," Benward said. "They still have the Dove Center. They still have the Safety Net. The boys don't have that access."

After taking some of the Lost Boys to lobby Utah lawmakers, the nonprofits secured some government funding for "homeless youth." The rest hinges on volunteer labor and community generosity.

"We don't have enough money for food. We don't have money for clothes," Benward said. "We don't have the full amount that we need for utilities. We need furniture. We need a fridge."

Warren Jeffs

The home is nice, but it needs some work. Where a staff member will live, they need to put in a bathroom. The lime green paint has to go.

But if there's one thing these boys know how to do, it is work. Working hard has been a staple of life, both inside and outside of "the Creek," or Short Creek.

"We've got to first paint it," said Ben.

He had been planning to leave, tired of life in the Creek. He saved $2,000 and had bought a car.

"I went over to my brother's house that day," said Ben, who is now 24 years old. "They said, 'No you can't stay with me. Dad will disown you, and you won't have nothing to do with the family no more.'"

Under FLDS leader Warren Jeffs, men have been banished from the polygamous sect and told to "repent from a distance." Ex-members claim their wives and children have been assigned to other men.

Jeffs, 51, is facing a September trial in 5th District Court. He is charged with first-degree felony rape as an accomplice, accused of performing a marriage between a 14-year-old girl and her 19-year-old cousin.

The stories of the Lost Boys are heartbreaking.

Some committed a "sin" such as wearing a short-sleeved shirt, kissing a girl or refusing to marry. Some grew tired of the rigid structures of the FLDS faith and ran away.

"Some, they intentionally get kicked out by misbehaving," said Jami Christensen, a volunteer at the shelter. "If they get kicked out, their families aren't necessarily dealing with the repercussions."

Some of their parents have turned their backs out of fear for the rest of the family and their eternal salvation in the church. The teens miss their parents and worry about their brothers and sisters.

'Kids raising kids'

The boys live in cars or crash in crowded apartments with dozens of other ex-FLDS teens.

"I left when I was 15, and I stayed in the back of my truck," said Kevin Black.

When they come out of the Creek, the teens have only the clothes on their backs. Then they often go wild - turning to drugs, alcohol, smoking and other vices.

"It didn't matter what you had. It didn't matter how much money you made. It didn't matter how many people liked you. Anything you did, you're still going to hell," Black said. "So what's the use in trying?"

Now 26, Black has sheltered many Lost Boys.

The nonprofits estimate there are more than 1,000 teens who have either left or been kicked out of the FLDS Church.

A network is emerging of teens who have left and are willing to shelter others. The nonprofits say it's a problem of "kids raising kids."

One place many Lost Boys crash at is a crowded little house affectionately referred to as "The Butt Hut."

"We'd have people in the bedroom, down the hall, into the kitchen," Ben said, chuckling. "The only place you couldn't sleep was in the bathroom."

In the shelter, they will have supervision. There will be a book of rules, such as no smoking, no drinking. The kids who stay in the house will have to go to school.

"It's guidelines and structure," said Christensen.

Benward said she already has several boys ready to move in to the home.

"In the last two weeks, we've gotten two 16-year-olds out of the Creek," she said.

In the corner, a teenage boy stands quietly. He's only been out for three weeks now.

"I have my little brother now," Ben said.

Raising funds

Compared to the larger problem of the Lost Boys, the drop-in center really is a drop in a bucket.

"More homes will be needed. More apartments will be needed," Murphy said. "It's a community problem, and the community needs to step forward and address it."

Still, Benward said it's a start.

"This is the first time the state has acknowledged that there is a problem," she said.

Armed with a letter of support from Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, Benward and Christensen have hit up businesses to donate.

"The community can come together and take care of these kids," Benward said.

The list of needs is long.

New Frontiers for Families has set up an account at Wells Fargo Bank to accept donations for "The House Just Off Bluff."

They hope to open the shelter at the end of August.

Much of the support is coming from those who have already left the Creek and made a life for themselves on the outside.

Lacy, who did not want her last name used, left the FLDS Church at 16.

"I didn't conform to what my dad wanted, and so he went and talked to Warren," she said.

She was told by Warren Jeffs to leave the community. "Warren told me to leave until I could gain a testimony," Lacy said. "I didn't braid my hair all the time. Things that in normal society no one would even look at, but because of the way they live, it was looked down upon and they didn't want me." Leaving Hildale and Colorado City, she crashed at a sister's place for a while. Now 20, Lacy has a 2-year-old son. She has volunteered to work at the shelter, planning and cooking meals. "I think it's awesome for this place to have opened," Lacy said. "They're giving kids a better opportunity to go mainstream in life and not turn to drugs and alcohol."

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