Homeless teens at BHS have a friend and advocateMar 31, 2023 12:28PM ● By Peri Kinder
Bingham High students Quinton Vuong and Ryelynn Blair help out in the pantry run by Heather Smith through the McKinney Vento program. Although the program is a support for homeless teens, Smith welcomes any BHS student who needs a snack, a drink or a listening ear. (Photo courtesy of Heather Smith)
Bingham High School doesn’t have a lot of homeless students, but Heather Smith, the McKinney Vento representative at BHS, believes even one homeless student is too many.
During the 2021-22 school year, Smith had 125 students on her rolls, but only 10 were truly homeless, living in cars or parks. Others were in shared-housing situations with other family members, or living in motels or shelters, and several were couch surfing at friends’ houses.
This school year, the number of homeless students on her radar dropped significantly to 25, with a handful of actual homeless teens. Smith’s job is to ensure students living in homeless situations keep their education stable, continue to attend classes and graduate.
McKinney Vento is a federal program for schools to identify and help homeless students who might not otherwise get the support they need to succeed. Smith works with organizations to gather resources to help these students, as well as anyone else who might need help at BHS.
“I know a lot of people and because of that, I put the word out about what I do, and I get a lot of donations,” she said. “Because I get a lot of donations, I’m able to share with other schools and I’m able to open my doors to any kid who attends Bingham High School. That’s really what I’m known for. I think probably 95% of the kids I serve are not at risk in any way, shape or form. They just need a place to land and food and a mom for a minute.”
When teens register for school, a parent checks the box that says they are in a homeless situation. Part of Smith’s job is to find out if the family is truly homeless, and if it’s temporary or ongoing.
Also known as “The Snack Lady,” Smith keeps her office stocked with meals, snacks and drinks so students can stop by and get what they need, with no explanation or judgment. Most people don’t even know she works with homeless youth, they just want a place to sit for a moment and have a granola bar.
Quinton Vuong is a junior at BHS and member of the Hope Squad, a Utah-based organization that prioritizes mental wellness for students from elementary to high school. He said Smith makes students feel welcome, while easing the stigma of having them ask for help.
“Heather finds a perfect balance of having her rules while still having a safe and open, inviting environment,” Quinton said. “There are still some kids at Bingham who are considered homeless…she allows those people to have a meal. I think it’s so incredible. She doesn’t just do food. She provides things like clothing and menstruation items for girls.”
Smith is aware there are schools in Jordan District with higher numbers of homeless youth, but she takes her job seriously for the individuals she works with. When a student was kicked out of their home for revealing their sexual identity to their parents, Smith worked with county resources to find a safe place for the student to stay.
She holds one-on-one meetings with the students to make sure they are keeping up on school work and she keeps them focused on graduation.
“I tell the kids, ‘I’ll love you no matter what, but I’ll also tell you when you’re being stupid.’ I call them out,” she said. “I can yell at them and put them back on the right track or I can pat them on the back and tell them it’s okay, now go back to class. My doors are open to anybody and everybody. I don’t ask about their financial situation when they walk through my door.”
She calls the Jordan Education Foundation the “hero of the day” for providing food and snacks for her students. She also receives community donations and the PTSA steps in when she’s running low on bottled water or fresh fruit.
“Heather doesn’t gatekeep on who can come in,” Quinton said. “Everybody is welcome to come and grab a water bottle, grab a snack, even grab some microwave food. She provides the benefit of having a safe space within the school.”