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Help for homeless teens

Sun reporter

Within a couple of years, homeless teenagers could be living in a new dormitory-style center that would give them stability. Or they could be among at-risk students in an inner-city boarding school that would provide shelter as well as an education.

Advocacy groups say new ways must be found to help a nearly invisible group of teenagers who try to keep their homelessness a secret from authorities. Yet those programs would help a tiny percentage of the hundreds of homeless teenagers, who live unsupervised by adults.

In the series, "On Their Own," The Sun documented this week the lives of Iven Bailey and Gary Sells, who struggled to complete their senior year at Lake Clifton-Eastern High School. Their story illuminated a little-known problem, child advocates say.

"We have got to look at alternative approaches," said Leslie Leitch, executive director of AIDS Interfaith Residential Services Inc. (AIRS), which assists a clientele that includes homeless teenagers.

Such children, she said, have been known to child welfare advocates for years. Some are stealing, some are prostituting, some are selling drugs.

"We can make them wards of the state, but that shouldn't be the only alternative for these teenagers," she said.

Leitch and others say changes must be made to institutions -- including the child welfare system and the schools -- to provide the right kinds of services.

There were 2,289 homeless students in the city schools last year, about half of whom lived in shelters at some point. Others lived with friends or relatives, or in vacant houses.

Many hide their moves from one friend's house to another, their hunger and their vulnerability because they say they fear becoming part of the social services system and being taken away from familiar schools and neighborhoods to land in a group home or foster care.

The "On Their Own" series has prompted an outpouring of support for the two young men and others like them. In response, the Fellowship of Lights, a 35-year-old organization that runs the city's only shelter exclusively for teenagers, announced Wednesday that it will establish two funds, one to handle donations for Iven and Gary, and one to help teenagers at risk in the city.

Several nonprofits and city agencies, including the Fellowship of Lights, have been meeting for more than a year to create one of the two new models. It would be a center for 28 teenagers expected to open no sooner than the summer of 2007, Leitch said.

At the center, she said, teenagers would stay for up to three or four years in suites with their own rooms and common living areas. A housemother would supervise the groups. But unlike in foster care, participants would not have to become wards of the state and would be trained for a career or offered academic remediation.

However, Maryland law stands in the way of such a program, she said. There appears to be a conflict between two laws. One allows a 16-year-old to sign a lease; the other does not allow anyone under 18 to live without a parent or guardian.

The groups -- which include AIRS, the Fellowship of Lights and Baltimore Homeless Services -- are seeking an exception that would allow residents of the proposed center to avoid becoming wards of the state.

The second model could come from a collaboration between the Abell Foundation and the SEED School of Washington, D.C., a public boarding school. Abell is exploring the financial feasibility of opening a school for middle- and high-schoolers in the city.

Abell has gotten inquiries over the years from principals who were desperate for rooms where a few of their students could stay overnight, said Robert C. Embry Jr., president of Abell, a Baltimore foundation that focuses on education. The kids might not be homeless, he said, but the principals would tell him, "There are kids I can't send home at night."

Funding for the Baltimore boarding school could be difficult because Maryland's charter school law does not provide public money for boarding.

Calls for systemic changes in foster care are also being made by legislators, including Del. Bobby A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat, who said legislation will be introduced in the forthcoming session of the General Assembly.

If the system were better and teenagers were not afraid of it, he said, the number of homeless youth would likely decline.

Iven Bailey and Gary Sells graduated in part because of the break up of the city's largest comprehensive high schools into small schools, where students were better known to their teachers and principals. Bonnie S. Copeland, chief executive officer of the city schools, said the last of the large high schools won't disappear for three or four years.

The school system, she said, must also provide more social services, health care and work opportunities for students to make money legitimately.

"It is not enough to focus on the academic needs of our students," she said.

What is needed as much as anything, says City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. is the involvement of people in the area to mentor and help children. "It is going to take the entire city to get involved," he said. "If everyone in the community in which they live would just go into the school for one hour, once a month," children would be helped.

The series has kindled interest in volunteering, according to Ross Pologe, executive director of the Fellowship of Lights. One woman told him the young men in the story were like her 25 years ago, and a college senior told him she felt she should be giving back, he said.

The Fellowship of Lights, a United Way participating agency that has beds for 19 homeless teenagers, will establish a donor-directed fund "for the purpose of enhancing Gary and Iven's educational and personal development." A second fund will be set up to help the many other Baltimore teenagers who may be living without parental support, Pologe said. To help, go to fellowshipoflights .org/contact.html, or call the agency at 410-332-4277, ext. 223. To read the four-part series and related offerings, go to

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