Some of the young people at the crowded drop-in center pulled pizza slices from boxes and gathered around a community dining room table. Others filtered in and out of a lounge where state workers would help them get ID cards.
As many as 50 young people each day visit the Youth Empowered Society, which runs the YES Drop-In Center near Charles Village for teens and young adults living on the streets, to meet with case managers and lawyers, sign up for services, take workshops on mediation or money management or just relax in a safe space.
The center is a haven for what advocates say is a hidden population of homeless and unaccompanied youth, ages 13 to 25, estimated 4.2 million nationwide. In Maryland, thousands are doubled up with friends and family or sleeping in shelters, in vacant houses or on the streets.
Homelessness looks different for young people than for adults, advocates say, starting with the reasons they’re driven there in the first place. Some are homeless as a result of the death, incarceration or substance abuse of a parent, or overcrowding in their homes. Others run away, age out of foster care or leave a juvenile justice facility with nowhere to go. Disproportionate numbers are African-American or gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.
“They call themselves an invisible population because they look like everyone else,” said Deborah Harburger, a clinical instructor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work. “They blend right in, and yet they’re having to find a place to lay their head at night.
“They’re living with their friend, and then in two weeks they’re going to go to their cousin’s. They’re holding down a job and they’re trying to go to the community college. Maybe they have a kid with them. They don’t have stable housing, but they’re working paycheck to paycheck. They’re scraping by.”
Chapin Hall, an independent policy research center at the University of Chicago, reported this month that one in 10 unaccompanied young adults ages 18 to 25 experience homelessness at least once during a 12-month period. At least one in 30 youths aged 13 to 17 also face some form of homelessness without a parent or guardian.
The report, “Missed Opportunities: Youth Homelessness in America,” is part of the research center’s Voices of Youth Count initiative, regarded as the country's most comprehensive research initiative on the subject. The findings, based on a national survey and in-depth interviews, show that youths in urban and rural areas experience homelessness at similar rates, and that minorities, LGBT youths and high school dropouts are at higher than average risk.
Researchers conducted a similar count throughout much of Maryland for the second Youth REACH MD report, also released this month. They identified more than 2,300 youth as unaccompanied and homeless based on surveys and the number of people younger than 25 who sought local homeless services.
Advocates say the number is an underrepresentation, but offers a starting point to better understand the scope of the problem and find policy solutions.
State researchers are looking for youths who are lacking a safe, stable and adequate nighttime residence. They included people who are couch surfing or sleeping in shelters, among other situations. The majority were in Baltimore.
“In many ways, this problem of youth homelessness is really a canary in the coal mine, warning us about a whole bunch of issues that we’re having in this country,” said George Jay Unick, the University of Maryland School of Social Work professor who was principal investigator for the local count. “Whether it’s affordable housing, the opioid epidemic, challenges to our foster care system, underinvestment in public transportation — who gets hurt are these vulnerable youth.”
YES center director Blair Franklin said the staff goes to lengths to keep the space safe and nonthreatening. They require guests to ring the door bell to enter and provide regular reminders not to comment on the appearances of others.
A sign in the lobby sets the tone: “YES is inclusive of and supportive to same-gender-loving lesbian, gay, bisexual, down low, queer, transgender, and questioning youth.”
“It is super important we come to the work being trustworthy, treating folks with dignity and respect and being incredibly youth-led and youth-centered,” Franklin said.
Workers from the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration set up computers and fielded questions at the center one recent day to help the youths get identification. YES staff helped the young people navigate some of the government requirements, including printing out letters for the teens and young adults to certify they were homeless.
Emani Lee, a 21-year-old who works as a hostess and in security, visited the center to replace the ID she lost last month so she can apply for a better-paying job as a bartender. Lee, who grew up in Baltimore, said the tight-knit YES center has been a support in many ways. She has been able to get help finding stable housing and accessing mental health services.
“You find some of the best quality in small villages,” she said. “Everything doesn’t have a headlight above it. Some things just have a dim light at the end of the tunnel. I can see the light more and more. It’s a brighter day. Getting an ID helps that.”
Ingrid Lofgren is director of the homeless youth initiative at the Homeless Persons Representation Project.
New York, San Francisco and other cities draw homeless youths, sometimes known as travelers or backpackers, she said, but the homeless youths in Baltimore tend to be local. Many are squatting in boarded-up houses, known to the young people as “abandos” or “vacs,” which makes the population difficult to find and vulnerable to trafficking, drug use or bartering sex to address basic needs.
The new survey results provide greater clarity on the problem and a pathway to finding ways to prevent it, she said.
“In Baltimore, there are a lot of issues with intergenerational poverty and homelessness,” Lofgren said. “It’s youths who are from our community, from our neighborhoods, who have family close by and for various reasons family is unwilling or unable to care for them, due to conflict in the family, due to substance abuse or because systems drive families apart.”
Some help is on the way. The Historic East Baltimore Community Action Coalition is planning to open a shelter in the spring. Officials at the nonprofit cite stable housing as a major barrier to the more than 350 teens and young adults in its Youth Opportunities education and workforce development program. As many as a third of the youths suffer housing instability, prompting the staff to find a way to house them on site. The organization raised $425,000 from public and private sources to create the 10-bed shelter with separate spaces for males, females and families.
The spotlight on the issue also is prompting the Mayor’s Office of Human Services to invest in rapid re-housing programs, intensive family reunification efforts and flexible support services to address the need as advocates are beginning to better understand it. said Terry Hickey, who runs the office.
“Getting unaccompanied youth access to custom services is the way to go,” said Terry Hickey, who runs the office. “We’re just starting up this hill.”
Brandii Taylerr is a 20-year-old transgender woman from the Eastern Shore who helped with the Maryland youth homelessness count.
Taylerr said she moved to Baltimore with a friend after her mother kicked her out of the house following an argument in August. She stayed in a motel until she ran out of the money she had saved up from her full-time job in Easton. She said she spent weeks sleeping at friends’ houses or on the ground in wooded areas before she eventually found a shelter where she felt safe. A case manager was able to help her get into a re-housing program, and she is looking for work as a server or bartender.
“I watched everything crumble right in front of my eyes,” she said. “For a lot of these youth out here, it can happen out of nowhere.
“It’s not easy out here.”