Ciera Dunlap, 25, has spent much of her life caught in the throes of uncertainty, as a homeless youth and living without a guardian in Baltimore City.
"At 11, the state placed me in foster care, and I ran away at 12," said Dunlap, who spent six years after that without a fixed residence.
"Being homeless [as a young person] is extremely hard," she said. "At that age people don't take you seriously."
Dunlap now resides at Restoration Gardens, apartments for homeless youth located in Park Heights. She works as a peer case manager at the Youth Empowered Society (YES) Drop-in Center on Charles Street in Baltimore, where she counsels unaccompanied homeless youth between the ages of 14 and 25.
As a peer counselor, she spoke on a recent Tuesday to Desmond Sims, 21. Sims is homeless and living on the streets of Baltimore.
"It's hard — some days it's cold, you're on the streets, you're thinking about what you're going to eat, where you're going to sleep and sometimes you've got to stay up all night, and your mind is racing about when you're going to find a job. But if you find a job, it's hard for you to maintain that job," Sims said.
Sims is part of a growing population of what is known as homeless unaccompanied youth — young people between the ages of 14 and 25 not in the physical custody of a parent or guardian who are struggling to fight their way out of poverty into a permanent living situation.
"It is absolutely a statewide issue or challenge," said Del. Mary Washington, who represents Baltimore City. She became aware of the issue when she was approached by homeless youth at the Youth Empowered Society Drop-In Center in 2012.
The YES Drop-In Center, founded in 2012 by former homeless youth, is the city's only drop-in day center for homeless youth, offering resources to meet basic needs, said Lara Law, program director at the center.
"We were envisioned ... as a one-stop-shop — somewhere young people could get their variety of needs met ... instead of going around town to different places where people didn't know how to work with them, and weren't always respectful to them," Law said.
In addition to peer counselors, the center on Charles Street offers meals, clothing, a place to do laundry, school supplies, workshops, help with applying for benefits and a place to relax. The center mainly serves youth in Baltimore City, but serves those from nearby Baltimore County as well.
Across town in West Baltimore, the nonprofit shelter Loving Arms is one of two shelters in Baltimore City that provides temporary housing to homeless unaccompanied youth. It has 10 beds and eight cots, serving youth between the ages of 13 and 24, Williams said.
"Kids come to us through a variety of ways. Most of the time a parent or caregiver has reached their limit based on what they feel the young person is or is not doing," said Cindy Williams, executive director and CEO of the shelter. "A lot of young people are being thrown out of their homes — in the heat of the moment."
She said others "are running away because — while they can't prove maltreatment or emotional and psychological abuse and neglect — they certainly are experiencing that in their homes."
Loving Arms primarily serves youths from Baltimore City and Baltimore, Howard and Harford counties, but won't turn anyone away, Williams said.
There really isn't a place for youth between 18 to 25, who are uncomfortable staying at adult shelters, Law said. That group of homeless youths will often put themselves in precarious situations such as trading sex for housing, living in abusive situations or staying in filthy or crowded places in order to avoid staying in shelters, Law said.
Growing problem, even in suburbia
Throughout Maryland, more than 14,000 homeless students were enrolled in the 2011-2012 school year, said William Reinhard, a spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education.
In Baltimore County, the school system's executive director of the Department of Student Services Debra Brooks said schools have seen a "sharp increase" in homeless enrollment.
The school system saw a nearly 28 percent increase between the 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 school years, from 2,454 students to 3,136, according to Baltimore County Public Schools data.
The county reported 251 unaccompanied homeless youths — the most of any jurisdiction in the state — according to a 2013 Task Force to Study Housing and Support Services for Homeless Unaccompanied Youth.
Homeless youths face numerous daily obstacles including physical and mental health problems, a high risk of school drop-out, high pregnancy rates, involvement in the juvenile justice system and unemployment, the task force report says.
In urban areas where shelters and other resources are available, it is easier to identify youth, but in suburban areas it is difficult to know how many children there are, said Diana Bowman, director of the National Center for Homeless Education, housed at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Resources are concentrated in urban centers while resources in suburban and rural areas are more spread out, Bowman said.
There are shelters located within Baltimore County, but they only serve adults or children accompanied by a parent or guardian. There are no shelters specifically for homeless unaccompanied youth in the county.
But to to ensure homeless students get equal access to education, they are entitled to certain services through the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987.
"Often times it is the one source of stability in chaos," said Monisha Cherayil, lead attorney with the Public Justice Center's Education Stability Project who provides legal services to homeless youth. "If you do have a stable place to go to school, then often times there's a connection to friends and teachers and somewhere to go during the day or activities like sports that keep you motivated."
Many students also value their education, seeing it as a way out of homelessness, Cherayil said.
Through the federal McKinney-Vento Act, states are provided grant funding for school district programs that support homeless assistance, for example, the Free and Reduced Price Meals (FARMS) program that ensures students receive breakfast and lunch.
Each local school district is required to have a homeless liaison responsible for ensuring that homeless students get services to such as transportation to and from their school of origin and free meals during the school week. Money to provide the services comes from an MSDE grant and federal Title 1 funding, Brooks said.
Mary Jo Slowey, homeless liaison for Baltimore County Public Schools, said that although she received enough funding to cover needed services this year, she is constantly looking for alternative sources of money.
"My worry would be that [services for homeless students] would become an unfunded mandate like many things are [and we would be expected] to figure it out," Slowey said. "My goal has been to look at other funding sources in anticipation of that changing."
Williams said the Loving Arms shelter is finding that the "challenge is around transportation for schools."
She said many of the homeless youths "have to catch two and three buses to get to a school, which can be challenging. They have to get up very early to get there, and many of them do."
Providing transportation is expensive, particularly because the county is so large and students are kept in their school of origin, Slowey said.
The school system was sued in 2006 for violation of the McKinney-Vento Act in a class-action lawsuit by the Public Justice Center for allegedly failing to identify and enroll homeless students, provide them with adequate transportation services and give them free meals.
The lawsuit was settled in 2008, requiring the school system to provide monitoring reports on all of its homeless students for two years, according to a Public Justice Center press release.
The Public Justice Center worked with the county to implement policies and best practices, which led to positive results, Cherayil said.
"I don't have any experiences indicating there are any violations," Cherayil said, adding that the county has identified a large number of homeless unaccompanied youth, which is a good sign they are complying.
Prison and homeless youths
Homeless unaccompanied youth are more likely to spend time in prison, Law said.
"There is a lot of contact with the justice system — the juvenile and adult system especially for young men," Law said. "It's ... partly because they are out on the streets and they're targeted, [and] partly because they're getting into things because they don't have money to pay for their basic needs."
Of the youth served at YES Drop-in Center last year, 51.6 percent said they had been in prison, according to data collected by the organization.
Currently, the juvenile justice system does not assess the housing status of children who are incarcerated, Washington said.
According to the 2013 task force report, those exiting the juvenile justice system are at-risk of becoming homeless, because they lack economic resources, lack family support and face barriers with reenrollment in school.
"A lot of the crimes that are committed are what I like to call 'survival crimes' — so we see a lot of people being charged with vagabond, so they're just out wandering around with their belongings or loitering out on the street, or on the sidewalk sleeping," Dunlap said.
The majority of homeless unaccompanied youths come from low-income and "fractured" families, Law said.
"The justice could have contributed to a break-up in their family and maybe their family even relied on it when they were younger," Law said.
Addressing broader issue
Seeing the needs of homeless unaccompanied youth prompted Washington to sponsor a bill in 2013 to establish a state task force to study the issue.
The task force, comprised of representatives from state agencies, advocates and members of faith-based organizations, determined ways to better serve the population, Washington said.
"There was a lot of value in all of the agencies meeting together, because they were all addressing unaccompanied homeless youth. We all knew there was such a thing ... agencies were essentially addressing a population that didn't exist ... it didn't exist in statute," Washington said.
Out of the recommendations of the task force, the Maryland Homeless Youth Count Demonstration Project was started. It's purpose is to collect data about needs and characteristics of homeless youth. That project was established by another House bill sponsored by Washington, and officially began July 1, 2014.
Because many agencies do not assess the housing status of those they serve, data collected by the state does not reflect the scope of the issue, said Ingrid Lofgren, a member of the task force and an attorney at the Homeless Persons Representation Project.
Baltimore County is one of six continuums of care, or jurisdictions, required to count unaccompanied homeless youth along with Annapolis/Anne Arundel County, Baltimore City, Hagerstown/Washington County, Prince George's County, and Wicomico/Somerset/Worchester counties.
"This year, I will be ... working to make sure that the foster care system doesn't inadvertently contribute to the homeless population between the ages of 18 and 21," Washington said referring to legislation she introduced in the House of Delegates Thursday, Feb. 18.
The bill received a favorable report by the House of Delegates Judiciary Committee on March 30, and is currently in the state Senate. It would require courts to assess whether local social services departments consider permanency planning as part of a youth's exit from the foster care system.
"Whether it's their intervention with law enforcement, whether it's their exposure to sexual exploitation, whether it's their exposure to domestic and criminal violence. We really believe that focusing on stabilizing their housing is important — a lot of these other issues we can mitigate," she said.
As policy makers like Washington work to enact statewide laws to ensure young people aren't living on the streets, Williams said kids are growing frustrated.
"I'm sick of studies and I'm sick of consultants being hired to do studies and do meetings," Williams said. "Take all that money that's being used to study and give it to programs that help these kids."
Washington understands their frustrations, she said.
"I wish that I could pass one piece of legislation that could repair 60 years of investment in our most vulnerable kids," Washington said. "They are right it's not enough — it's not moving fast enough."
As public officials work to craft state policies, YES Drop-In Center peer counselor Dunlap continues to work on helping homeless youth find a way out of their current situation.
And, she said, building relationships with state officials like Washington is important to increase awareness about needs of homeless youth.
"A lot of people don't think a problem with homeless youth exists," she said.
Dunlap's client Desmond Sims, who struggles with mental illness, said while the resources provided by the YES Drop-in Center help, "there could never be enough resources."
In the meantime, he said, he has to just keep going to survive.
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"If you don't you'll just break down altogether," he said.