Homeless youths face many challenges

Few resources are available to young people with no place to stay


MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Bobby Stenberg has been on his own since he was 15, but five years of bouncing from shelters to friends’ couches to the streets hasn’t been enough to make him want to live with his family again.

“All my family smokes crack and meth and I know if I stayed with them I’d be in and out of jail all the time,” said the soft-spoken 20-year-old, the hood of his sweatshirt pulled tightly over his head.

For the last two months, Stenberg has stayed at Hope Street Shelter, operated by Catholic Charities for homeless people between the ages of 16 and 21. He has his own bed and a closet with a padlock. He’s one of the lucky ones.

Social service agencies estimate that every night in the Twin Cities, 1,500 people between 16 and 21 years old are homeless, while fewer than 50 shelter beds are set aside to serve that population. With many states reporting increases in the number of homeless youth amid a still-struggling economy, advocates are asking why such a vulnerable population seems to be perpetually overlooked.

“Adult shelters are generally not safe places for young people who are just coming on the streets,” said Hope Street’s director, Andrea Simonett. “They can be taken advantage of very easily.”

Hope Street has 16 “emergency beds” for 16- to 21-year-olds, with no time limit on how long they can stay. Simonett said most stay about 25 days — long enough to force shelter workers to turn away dozens more.

Turned away at shelters

In fiscal year 2009, the shelter turned down lodging requests from 1,078 kids. Simonett said that’s much higher than in 2007 or 2008, and in general, shelter workers and advocates for homeless youth said the problem seems to be getting worse.

“For sure, the recession is having a big impact — the job losses, the home foreclosures,” said Barbara Duffield, policy director for the Washington-based National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. “What we are hearing anecdotally is that when families can’t take care of all their kids, the oldest kid is the first to get squeezed out.”

Advocates said the best measure of homeless youth nationwide is an annual U.S. Department of Education tally of homeless public school students. In the 2007-08 school year, districts reported 794,617 homeless students, up 17 percent from the year before.

Duffield said she’s started to see 2008-09 numbers for specific states, and so far the increases have been even larger: 28 percent in California and Colorado, 21 percent in Florida. “I expected increases, but the numbers coming in so far, I was shocked,” she said.

Family discord a main cause

While the economy is a likely factor in the increase, many homeless young people end up that way for traditional reasons — family discord often fueled by alcohol and drugs, or physical or sexual abuse. Kenesha Hughes, a 19-year-old who’s been living at Hope Street for the last three months, said she left home after her mother stole money from her that had been earmarked for college.

“I don’t want to go back there,” Hughes said.

As residents at Hope Street, Stenberg and Hughes are assigned case managers who ensure they are applying for jobs and looking for a more permanent living situation. Residents are not allowed to be at the shelter from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays, a requirement intended to motivate them to get out and improve their lives.

People who work with homeless youth said younger people often get lost in the shuffle at adult shelters. At youth shelters, they get the benefit of efforts to steer them away from chronic homelessness.

“They’re at this very vulnerable stage from 16 to 21 to entering into a long-term homeless situation,” said Ed Murphy, director of The Bridge, another Minneapolis youth shelter. “If you intervene early enough with some education and resources, you might be able to prevent that.”

The problem is resources. Much of the government spending on homelessness prevention in recent years has been geared toward adults and families, according to several advocates interviewed for this story. Teenagers on their own often get branded as runaways and troublemakers and are often too self-conscious or proud to ask for help, Murphy said.

On their own

So what happens to homeless youth when they can’t find room in a shelter that’s geared toward their needs?

According to those who work with them, some find room at traditional shelters, sleeping on cots packed into rooms with hundreds of other homeless people. Some hop from one couch to the next at homes of friends or relatives. Some are taken in by pimps or sexual predators who prey on their vulnerabilities. Some nap in coffee shops, mall benches or cars.

“There are kids who ride the bus for hours, as long into the night as they can,” Simonett said.

Stenberg and Hughes both have goals they’ve set with the help of their Hope Street case managers. Stenberg, whose last job was at a McDonald’s, hopes to find work as a cook and to have his own apartment.

Hughes dreams of studying to become a dental assistant and eventually a dentist. She’d like to leave Hope Street — which would open a scarce bed — but she needs a job first.

“I never planned on staying here this long,” Hughes said. “Time just went by so fast.”