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Youth homelessness in Baltimore higher than previously thought

Stigma, among other factors, can lead youth homelessness to be under-reported.

Homelessness among Baltimore youths is much higher than previously thought, according to an Abell Foundation report released Wednesday.

More than 1,400 young people under the age of 25 were unaccompanied by a parent or guardian, without a safe, stable, affordable place to live, according to data collected by homeless advocates, service providers, the University of Maryland, the city and other stakeholders.

The Youth REACH MD findings in the Abell Foundation report included not only youths living on the streets and in homeless shelters, but also those in unstable living situations — who might be staying for brief periods of time with friends or relatives.

More than half of the city's homeless youth surveyed opted to stay briefly with friends or relatives instead of living on the street or turning to homeless service providers, the report found. Many said they are reluctant to describe themselves as homeless because they fear the stigma and don't want to be involved in child welfare and juvenile justice systems, according to the report.

Exacerbating the problem, most traditional homeless services are geared toward adults, and the few youth-centric homeless centers are typically already at capacity, the report said.

"As a result, the already high number of unaccompanied homeless youth cited by the Youth REACH MD findings is likely much higher," the report said.

The survey was the most thorough ever completed in Baltimore City, said Danielle Meister of the Mayor's Office of Human Services, who coordinates of the city's Continuum of Care, the group that performed the survey.

The city expected its count to outstrip the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's annual homeless numbers because it was done over three weeks with an expanded scope.

"We went beyond looking at literally homeless youth," Meister said.

Megan Lucy, who authored the Abell Foundation's report, said the nonprofit hired current and former homeless youths to help find others and assist with interviewing them.

"The most effective way is to work with the youths themselves," Lucy said. "They're the experts in their own lives and experiences."

Danny Jones, 21, was homeless in East Baltimore from ages 8 through 16 before being taken in at Loving Arms, the city's only emergency shelter for minors. Now a sophomore psychology student at Morgan State University, Jones counseled others at the shelter after he found housing.

He relates to the idea of teens being reluctant to wear the "homeless" label.

"They've got a self-image," he said.

Because of his experiences, Jones said, homeless youths pay attention when he tells them about his time at Loving Arms.

"When you're talking to the youth, you have to make it very personal," he said. "'I know what you're going through. Not everybody could withstand what you're going through.'"

During the survey, Meister said, she was reminded that homelessness happens for a variety of reasons.

"There's no one story when it comes to youth homelessness," she said. "What they really were looking for was support and hope and getting back into a safe situation where they were cared for."

The report followed HUD's announcement two weeks ago that it had recored an 8 percent drop in homelessness in Maryland. It found only 279 homeless youths across the state on one night last January.

The Abell Foundation report pointed out problems with HUD's "point-in-time" surveys, performed on one night each January, and which advocates say undercounts the homeless youth population.

HUD said it is working to improve its methods of accounting for homeless youths. The agency is partnering with the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness and the U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services for a more accurate picture, spokeswoman Nika Edwards said.

Those agencies, Edwards said, "plan to use 2017 as the baseline year for tracking efforts to end homelessness among youth on the streets and in sheltered environments."

Cindy R. Williams, founder of Loving Arms, said youth homelessness is difficult to count, especially because of the lack of services available to those under 18.

"It's impossible to say it's decreasing when there's no services tied to that group of young people," she said. "They have nothing."

Loving Arms in Northwest Baltimore is one of only six youth-focused service providers in the city and the only emergency shelter for minors.

Williams hopes to see transitional housing open to 16- and 17-year-olds in the future.

"I'm hopeful that change is coming," she said. "It's been a slow process, but I do see results are coming."

cmcampbell@baltsun.com

twitter.com/cmcampbell6

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