ST. GEORGE — The smell of fresh paint is in the air as one walks through the door, stepping onto stone tile still being laid on the ground. Electrical fixtures are being installed, and mixed and matched pieces of furniture are everywhere.
This home near Bluff Street will be a new shelter for the so-called “Lost Boys,” teenagers kicked out of the Fundamentalist LDS Church. That is, if they can navigate their way through government bureaucracy to get the home licensed and approved in time for its scheduled Oct. 4 opening.
“I can’t put any kids in here. I have five kids, and three more 17-year-olds. What do you do?” Michelle Benward said as she walked through the home Friday.
Benward is the clinical director of Garfield County-based New Frontiers for Families, a nonprofit social service group. It and the Diversity Foundation have put together this home for teenage boys who have either run away from or been kicked out of the FLDS enclaves of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz.
“Every week, I get a new kid,” Benward said of the growing number of teens leaving the polygamous border towns.
Advocacy groups estimate there are as many as 1,000 of these Lost Boys. The ones kicked out commit “sins” like wearing too short of a shirt, kissing a girl or refusing to marry. Those who leave say they’re tired of the rigid structures of the FLDS faith. Many say their families won’t speak to them, afraid of the other children and their eternal salvation within the FLDS Church.
“The kids come with a really good background,” said Shannon Price, the director of the Diversity Foundation. “I hear a lot of vilifying of parents in the community. The parents don’t have a lot of choice.”
These teens often live on the streets or crash with other Lost Boys. Many have run into trouble with drugs, alcohol and the courts. Advocates say it’s a problem of “kids raising kids,” and an example of why they need this home.
The home has transformed dramatically since Benward and other advocates first acquired it. A former drop-in care center for senior citizens, it was purchased by an anonymous donor and given to advocates to help the Lost Boys.
Many of the teenagers who will be living here have been donating their time and labor to remodel the home. Many FLDS boys are schooled in the construction trade, and their craftsmanship shows.
“All of the stuff in here was donated,” Benward said.
Since the home for the Lost Boys was first reported on by the Deseret Morning News in July, Benward said readers have donated furniture to fill it.
“I have 15 couches,” she chuckled.
Walking through the home, Benward is proud to show off all of the donated furniture. She said the Lowe’s home improvement stores donated counter-tops. Members of the local Lutheran church donated quilts. Deseret Industries, a humanitarian arm of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, donated new beds for the eight-bedroom home. (The FLDS Church is a breakaway sect.)
“Roger Hoole is bringing a big-screen TV,” Benward said as she walked through the downstairs family room, where an entertainment center sits empty.
Hoole is an attorney for several ex-FLDS members who have sued polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs and the FLDS Church. Jeffs, 51, is on trial here in 5th District Court on charges of rape as an accomplice, a first-degree felony. He is accused of performing a marriage between a 14-year-old girl and her 19-year-old cousin.
Defense attorneys contend that Jeffs did not commit a crime but instead counseled the young woman as any religious leader would.
The trial is having an effect on the teenage boys counseled by Benward and others. She said some are struggling with the attention and focus on Jeffs and the FLDS Church. For some who speak out, they have heard from their families still within the church.
“They say, ‘You’ve shamed your family and you’ve created problems for us,”‘ Benward said.
The home, when finished, will serve as a combination drop-in center and sometime-housing for the teenage boys who need education, rules and supervision in their lives. But Benward said time is of the essence.
“I’m fearful there are kids who aren’t going to have a place to stay,” she said. “It’s like going to Christmas and not getting a present.”
When they first submitted their application, Benward said she was told to expect a response by Aug. 15. No response ever came, she claims.
When the Deseret Morning News asked St. George city officials about the delays, assistant city manager Marc Mortensen said the home’s operators need to file a request for a zoning change.
“The zone that facility is in allows for a treatment facility but does not allow for housing,” he said.
Once they fill out the proper paperwork, Mortensen said their request will have to go before the city’s planning commission and then the City Council for a vote. Benward said she will do what it takes to get the facility open in time.
Meanwhile, New Frontiers for Families and the Diversity Foundation are seeking financial donations to pay for operating costs once the home is up and running. An account has been set up at Wells Fargo Bank for “The House Just Off Bluff,” as some of the Lost Boys have taken to calling it.
“Most of these kids are raised well. They have good work ethics. They’re bright kids,” Price said. “This will help these kids excel.”