Baltimore's homeless youth make do in a city that doesn't know they're there

Emmanuel is a thoughtful 23-year-old with cargo pants, stylish sideburns, and a tendency to insert Biblical quotes into conversation. "Jesus said that foxes have holes and birds have nests but the son of man have not a place to rest his head," for instance.

That one particularly resonates: Emmanuel has been homeless on and off for the last five years. He spent his childhood bouncing around the foster care system after running away from an abusive home at the age of 8. Then, at 18, he "aged out" and was left to fend for himself. "I met people along the way," he says. "But there was nobody there who was like, 'OK, I'm gonna ride this thing out with you.'" He's slept in shelters, apartment building vestibules, even a crack house once. He's walked all night to stay awake and bought cheap cups of coffee at McDonald's just so he could nod off over them. For now, things are better; he's staying with friends.

Emmanuel—who, like most of the youth interviewed for this story, did not want to give his last name—is one of a significant number of Baltimoreans between the ages of 14 and 24 who are, in the vernacular of the service provider, "unstably housed." They form an elusive demographic that tends to avoid conventional homeless shelters and other forms of public assistance. Many do not consider themselves homeless. They often prefer to say they're "couch surfing," or crashing at a friend or relative's house. As a result, it is a difficult population to find, let alone serve. And while many cities began addressing youth homelessness decades ago, Baltimore is in some ways only just beginning. Meanwhile, an unknown number of the city's young people are growing up and getting by largely on their own.

"It should be viewed as an incredibly important issue in Baltimore City," says Vignetta Charles, a former researcher at the Johns Hopkins Center for Adolescent Health. "The level of unstable housing for youth should be unacceptable for us who live in the community." The outlook for youth who experience homelessness can be bleak. According to Charles, one of the number one predictors of adult homelessness is youth homelessness.

One of the biggest obstacles to serving homeless youth is that it is extremely difficult to count them. Without solid numbers, funding can be hard to come by. The city's public school system keeps track of homeless students, but it relies on self- and shelter reporting. During the 2009-2010 school year, 1,605 students identified themselves as homeless. (Students who do so are eligible for benefits such as free lunch and school uniforms.) This figure includes both those who are homeless on their own and those accompanied by their families, and it does not include those who choose to keep their housing status secret or, obviously, those who don't attend school at all.

In order to receive federal money for homeless services, cities and counties must count their homeless population at least every two years. Baltimore Homeless Services (BHS) conducts a "point-in-time" homeless census that is meant to provide an accurate picture of the city's homeless population. On a given day, data is collected from shelters, soup kitchens, and drop-in centers. Roving census-takers also count people who are sleeping outdoors that night. But such methods don't tend to capture the scope of the homeless youth population. "The salient thing about homelessness among the young," says Nan Astone, a researcher with the Hopkins Center for Adolescent Health, "is that they can very often find a place to sleep—with relatives, with lovers, with friends. That is often what they'll choose to do rather than stay in shelters."

In 2007, Vignetta Charles spearheaded a count of homeless youth by the Baltimore Homeless Youth Initiative (BHYI), a coalition of community organizations and government agencies. The count was designed to parallel the BHS census, which researchers suspected was not adequately counting young people. For the parallel count, census takers networked with youth and the organizations that served them, and broadened the definition of homelessness to include young people who were unstably housed. The parallel count found 272 homeless and unstably housed young people (ages 8-25), whereas the city census found only 16, all from an emergency homeless shelter for youth. (In 2009, 426 unaccompanied young people were counted in the homeless youth parallel count, a number that once more dwarfed city results.)

Service providers caution that even these larger figures likely underestimate the true number of unaccompanied homeless youth in Baltimore. In one example of the difficulties researchers face, a group of about 45 young men who had gathered at a community center in East Baltimore for the 2009 parallel count were dispersed by police before they could be counted.

Homeless youth are as difficult to categorize as they are to count. "If you've seen one unstably housed young person, you can describe one unstably housed young person," Astone says. "The circumstances that brought them where they are are extremely diverse."

Some youth become homeless after running away from foster care. According to Molly McGrath, director of the city's Department of Social Services, about 100 kids are on runaway status from the system in any given month. Others, such as Emmanuel, lose their homes when they age out of the system altogether. (In one recent long-term study of young people formerly in foster care in the Midwest, by age 23 or 24 nearly 40 percent had been homeless or couch-surfed. In an effort to provide a smoother transition to self-sufficiency, the state of Maryland has recently placed more emphasis on extending foster care services to the age of 21.) Similarly, some young people become homeless upon exiting the juvenile justice system. Others run away from home voluntarily or are kicked out.

Sameka, 19, left home voluntarily, but she says the impetus was her mother's drug problem. She says her mother came to her junior prom, but then left early to go use. Last summer, when Sameka was in labor with her son, it happened again. "She said there was something she had to do," Sameka says. "I ended up having him by myself." Sameka and her son currently live at the city's only youth shelter, run by the Rose Street Community Center.

Jasmine Jones, 19, was kicked out of her home. "My mother didn't like my lifestyle," she says. "So she put me out." Jones is gay, and her situation is all too common. Studies indicate that at least 20 percent of the homeless youth population nationwide identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, double the number in the general population. At first Jones slept outside, at the Inner Harbor. "It was wintertime, so it was real cold," she says. She made her way to the city-sponsored adult shelter on Guilford Avenue known as Code Blue, and several months later, to Rose Street.


Officially speaking, the Rose Street youth shelter has just four beds, all designated for youth ages 12 to 18. But about 20 young people gathered for a recent meeting in the cramped East Madison Street rowhouse, a daily gathering presided over by Rose Street founder Clayton Guyton, or "Mr. C." Some sat on the staircase or on a mattress on the floor, others in the kitchen by a table piled high with packaged hot dog buns. Guyton launched into an inspirational speech peppered with jokes, songs, and reprimands. "Every day you gotta do something to help yourself," he said at one point. "'Cause let's face it—we ain't got a lotta help."

He might have been talking about the shelter itself. Zion Hunter, a residential counselor, says Rose Street is overwhelmed by needy youth, many referred by their peers. "The demand definitely over-exceeds our resources, and anything that the city offers at this point in time," he says. For now, young people over 18 are referred elsewhere or temporarily housed in other Rose Street properties.

State referrals—and reimbursements—from the child welfare and juvenile justice systems have long been an important source of income for emergency shelters and group homes that serve minors. But in 2007, former state Department of Human Resources secretary Brenda Donald launched a reform agenda that shifted funding away from such temporary housing. Called Place Matters, the effort emphasizes permanent housing for children, either with their original families or in foster care. ("City of Lost Kids," Feature, June 10 http://www.citypaper.com/news/story.asp?id=18211 and June 17, 2009 http://www.citypaper.com/news/story.asp?id=18240) One side effect is that referrals to emergency shelters have dwindled. A venerable city youth shelter called Fellowship of Lights recently closed its doors as a result, after 38 years. (Rose Street's youth shelter, which opened in 2009, relies primarily on federal grants.)

Funding for emergency youth shelters can also be scarce because they are controversial, particularly when they target minors. "Kids under the age of 18 should be engaged in the foster care system," says Kate Briddell, director of the city's homeless service program under the Mayor's Office of Human Services. "Minors are a difficult population to work with in terms of what the law is. You're walking a fine line in terms of parental notification."

But youth advocates argue that it is unrealistic to pretend that all minors will submit to foster care. "Foster care in Baltimore City has a stigma," former Hopkins researcher Vignetta Charles says. "[People] still have an association with the foster care of yesteryear, which had highly publicized cases of abuse and neglect." She says that while the new emphasis on permanent placement is a step forward, many youth will still choose to avoid the foster care system. But currently they have few positive alternatives.

Homeless youth that are 18 and over face a different array of problems. They are, of course, free to stay at any of the city's adult shelters. But such places tend to be structured for an older, chronically homeless population. "If you're over 18 and you go to a homeless shelter, the majority of the men are older, veterans, or men with substance abuse issues," Charles says. "You don't feel at home there." Several of the youth interviewed for this article claim to have witnessed drug activity inside the city-sponsored shelter on Guilford Avenue. ("That is the first time I've heard these allegations," Briddell says in response. "We definitely take those issues very seriously and we will be looking into them.") "Most of the shelters are not a good environment for somebody who's really trying to go somewhere," Emmanuel says. "The majority of the population is older by 10 to 20 years and really messed up."

One disturbing omission in the city shelter system may be an indication of how far Baltimore has to go in serving its youth: There is currently only one small shelter that will accept a homeless teenage boy between the ages of 14 and 18 who is in the company of his family. Homeless service program director Briddell says the problem arises because most family shelters do not have private rooms. "When a teenage boy gets to a certain age, it's hard for everybody to feel comfortable," she says. "It's often more of a de facto than a de jure thing." She says the city is hoping to begin renovation on a local shelter this summer to make it appropriate for families with teenage boys. In the meantime, families in this situation are placed in motels, or the teenage boys are placed separately. Ross Pologe, the chair of BHYI's steering committee, says the current system is adding to the problem of youth homelessness in the city. "We are creating unaccompanied young people," he says.

While the lack of local emergency youth shelters may seem shocking, those in the field say opening more of them is not necessarily the solution. "There are a dearth of services for homeless youth," Charles says. "But what we do know is that in Baltimore, they're not likely to use emergency shelters." Sometimes, says Pologe, that's because homeless youth tend to distrust institutions, and sometimes it comes down to pride. "Young people are young people. They're going to do it on their own largely," he says. "You know, It can't happen to me, I'm invulnerable, I can take care of myself. So we need a different kind of intervention."

BHYI is thus advocating for a "comprehensive array of services," including emergency shelters, short and long-term transitional housing, and drop-in resource centers. The centers would serve a motley array of needs. "Somewhere I can come in and get a toothbrush, use a washing machine, get a flier for a clinic, sign up for [food stamps]," Charles says. And such resource centers would need to be strategically located. "Baltimore City has a big problem with kids on the east side not going to the west side and vice versa," she says. "Crossing over to another side of town has in the past meant death. The kids I talked to would rather sleep on the street."


Youth homelessness is a concern nationwide, but Baltimore has been particularly slow to address it. While other small cities, particularly Cincinnati and Denver, have long had a multitude of resources for homeless youth—from drop-in centers to shelters to life-skills classes—Baltimore has only recently begun a coordinated effort. "A lot of the programs [in other cities] were developed in the '70s, when we really believed we could solve problems," says Nancy Strohminger, executive vice president of AIRS, a local nonprofit that provides housing and other services to youth and people with HIV as well as those at risk for HIV. "What is unusual for Baltimore is that we're trying to do it now. We're not tweaking a model—we're building it from scratch."

It is nevertheless—or perhaps therefore—a hopeful time for local homeless youth advocates. A moving 2005 Baltimore Sun series entitled "On Their Own," by reporter Liz Bowie, had a galvanizing effect on the city. The four-part series followed two homeless teenagers named Iven Bailey and Gary Sells as they struggled to complete their senior year of high school. Readers responded with an outpouring of sympathy, volunteerism, and money (some of which went to the subjects themselves). Following publication, a symposium on youth homelessness was held at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Since then, there have been signs of progress. A large permanent housing facility for youth ages 18 to 24 is set to open in the fall, for instance. Called Restoration Gardens, the $6 million, 43-unit building in southern Park Heights is the culmination of five years of work by the BHYI, particularly AIRS. Those who live there will have access to a range of services, including job training, educational opportunities, counseling, and other support services. Last year, AIRS also hired several "service navigators," outreach employees who are available to go anywhere in the city if and when a youth calls seeking help. Strohminger says that as a result, the organization is now getting about 50 intake calls a month from youth, where it previously received 50 intake calls a year. Word-of-mouth, supplemented by referrals from other social service providers, has done the trick.

Some institutional changes at the state level also bode well. Maryland recently developed the Ready by 21 Action Agenda. The effort is meant to ensure that 18 to 21-year-olds—or "transition-aged youth"—are "ready for college, work, and life." It calls for developing new sources of revenue, helping high school drop-outs find jobs, and expanding health care coverage to older youth, among other steps. It's too early to tell if the agenda will have any effect on Baltimore's homeless youth population. But city DSS Director Molly McGrath says that as a result of it, older children in foster care will be more prepared to enter the adult world (and thus less likely to become homeless). She says that DSS will train them in financial literacy, enroll them in driver's education, and teach them life skills, as well as help them find work and get a college education. "We'll get more coordinated over the next year," says McGrath, who became director in 2008. "If you call me a year from now, I'll respect myself."

Most of the funding for homeless youth services in Baltimore comes from the federal government, and there are also promising signs on that front. In May of last year, for instance, President Obama signed the HEARTH (Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing) Act into law. The act, which goes into effect in 2011, is the first substantial reauthorization of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act—the seminal 1987 legislation that extended a broad range of services to the homeless—in decades. Among many other changes, the HEARTH Act expands the definition of homelessness to include those who are unstably housed. It also mandates that programs funded by McKinney-Vento cannot refuse to serve families because of the age of the children.

But, at least for now, federally funded programs serve only a small percentage of the nation's homeless youth. (In 2007, for example, such programs made more than 700,000 contacts with youth through outreach but only provided shelter and housing to 47,400.) The BHYI, which formed in 2002, is hoping that state and local governments will start directing more funds to homeless youth. The coalition has drafted a Maryland Runaway Homeless Youth Act, which defines a program of activities serving homeless youth that would be supported by funding through the state's Department of Human Resources. "There's no new money at this point," BHYI's Ross Pologe says. "The first task in our mind is to deal with the enabling legislation. We have to look to when the economy rebounds and there might be increased resources available." BHYI is currently seeking sponsors and hopes the act will be introduced in the next legislative session, which starts in January.

On a more grassroots level, some local young people have become involved in spreading awareness about the problem of youth homelessness. The BHYI's Youth Leaders—a small group of homeless or formerly homeless young people—meets once a week. "We're advocating, being a voice for other young people," says Emmanuel, who is a member of the group. Thus far the Youth Leaders have hosted a homeless youth art slam and a fundraising cookout, and several members recently traveled to Detroit to participate in a workshop on homeless youth at a progressive gathering called the U.S. Social Forum.

Yet there are as many signs of inertia in the city as there are of progress. Baltimore's 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness, released in 2008, makes scant mention of homeless youth, calling only for a youth outreach team and one resource center for homeless youth. And the city's new 275-bed shelter on the Fallsway—set to open as early as this fall—will have no youth services. In response to questions regarding services for young people in the new shelter, Greg Sileo, director of community action for the Mayor's Office of Human Services, wrote in an e-mail: "The new Housing and Resource Center on the Fallsway will be a great opportunity for the collocation of resources. While it will not be the appropriate place to deliver services to people under the age of 18, we will partner with organizations to ensure that young people seeking assistance will get it." 

In the meantime, Baltimore's homeless youth are likely to remain resourceful, and as a result, largely invisible to the rest of us. "When it comes down to it, they'll find a place to stay," Rose Street's Zion Hunter says. They'll stay with relatives, friends, or people they don't know at all. Some will engage in "survival sex"—the bartering of sex for necessities, like shelter. (Some estimates rate homeless youth as more than 10 times as likely to be diagnosed with HIV as the general youth population, and studies have shown they are also at an increased risk for contracting other sexually transmitted infections.)

"When young people cannot get the resources that they need, then they become very creative," Rose Street's Clayton Guyton says. "They find other ways to make money, to eat. And it usually involves them compromising their morals." Guyton says the city should stop building juvenile detention centers and "start doing something about these young people."

Davon, 19, agrees. A member of the BHYI's Youth Leaders, he has been homeless for almost two years. "We need a Code Blue for young people," he says. "[The city doesn't] have a place for youth to stay, but if they go out and commit a crime they've got something called Baby Booking."

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