By Colleen Quinn
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, APRIL 18, 2012…..Diamond McMillion vividly remembers constantly feeling cold when she became homeless at 16 years old.
For the first two years she lived on the streets – sleeping in elevator shafts, under bridges, in parks – she could not shake the cold.
“There was no way to ever get warm,” she said.
Now 26 years old, she still shutters when she talks about it. McMillion was homeless for nearly a decade.
She remembers hopping from rooftop to rooftop along Boylston Street, looking for an apartment building that she and a band of other homeless teens could pry their way into to spend the night. The only bathrooms she ever used were in gas stations, but that never lasted long because attendants quickly caught on and banned her from using them.
Hunger always lingered among her group of homeless teens. One woman in the group, who was 19, prostituted herself to “make sure we all ate,” McMillion said. The young woman is dead now, like many of the people McMillion knew living on the streets – either dead or in jail, she said.
McMillion said there are many teenagers and young adults like her, living on the streets alone without family, fighting to survive.
State officials and those who advocate for the homeless say there is an alarmingly large population of so-called unaccompanied homeless young people, ages 14 to 22, living on the streets and in shelters across Massachusetts. The figure is growing, and too big to get a grasp of because homeless teenagers often hide their plight, and go uncounted, advocates say.
Massachusetts was one of the first states to include a question about homelessness in the student risk behavioral study school districts conduct for the federal government every two years, according to homeless advocates.
The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education gives the Youth Risk Behavior Survey in odd-number years to high school students in randomly selected public high schools across the state. The survey results are weighted to produce representative estimates of the entire public high school population, according to DESE.
In the 2009 YRBS survey – the most recent data available – 4.3 percent of Massachusetts public high school students identified themselves as homeless. Extrapolated to the entire high school population, it would equal roughly 12,500 students, according to a spokesman for DESE. The survey does not ask whether they are homeless with family members. But the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless estimates 6,000 teenagers are unaccompanied homeless, taking into account those who self-identify and predicting the number who keep it secret and those who drop out of school.
Schools also report the number of homeless students they can identify to DESE. In the 2010-11 school year, school officials reported a total of 14,247 students who identified themselves as homeless across all grades kindergarten through 12. Of that number, 4,195 students were in high school.
Those who work with the homeless say the figures do not paint an accurate picture of the problem because they only identify those who admit to being homeless. Most try to hide it, making sure they go unnoticed because they are ashamed of being homeless, while others without families fear they will be sent to foster care. Some try to protect their parents by keeping their homelessness hidden, advocates said. Many homeless teens drop out of school so no one counts them.
Officials from the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, founded in 1981, said they have never before witnessed such high levels of unaccompanied homeless youth. They attribute it partly to the recession.
“This particular issue has been percolating for a while,” said Robyn Frost, executive director of the coalition. “What we are hearing across the state is, in some cases, kids are leaving their homes because their parents really can’t afford to care for them anymore. Families are just being shoved into poverty.”
Others wind up on the streets because of family strife, or often because of their sexual orientation, advocates say. MassEquality, a statewide gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender advocacy group, estimates 20 to 40 percent of the homeless youth population is gay, lesbian or bisexual.
Unaccompanied homeless youth are described as someone under 18 years old, not accompanied by their parents, who have either lived on the streets or spent nights sleeping at a friend’s home with no expectation their stay will last long, according to the Coalition for the Homeless.
The coalition noticed an uptick in the homeless youth population after looking at data collected from the McKinney-Vento Act, a federal program that addresses aspects of homelessness including mandating communities pay transportation costs for homeless children who want to attend their schools of origin.
Some state officials have taken notice too.
Rep. James O’Day (D-West Boylston) hopes to get a handle on the issue by setting up a commission with representatives from several state agencies and homeless advocates to determine the extent of the problem and devise solutions. O’Day called it one of the state’s biggest “unaddressed issues,” and said it is hard to solve because there is no way to know how big the problem actually is.
“Our children, our youth, have to become a greater priority,” said O’Day, who spent 25 years as a social worker.
In the Worcester area alone, social service agencies that work with the homeless estimate there are approximately 2,000 homeless teenagers and young adults on their own, according to O’Day.
“I think the numbers are higher than that,” he said.
Under O’Day’s bill (H 3838), the Executive Office of Health and Human Services would contract with “organizations and agencies to provide housing and support services to address the needs of unaccompanied homeless youth.” The bill calls for a continuum of housing options, including emergency shelter, “kinship” home placements, short-term housing and transition to independent living. Additional support services including family and group counseling and access to medical, dental and mental health care would also be made available to homeless youth. The legislation does not ask for a specific amount of funding, but O’Day said once the commission has completed its study he estimates it will cost $5 million initially to launch some assistance programs.
The bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Kay Khan, cleared two legislative committees with favorable recommendations – the Committee on Children and Families and Persons with Disabilities and the Joint Rules Committee – and awaits action in the House Ways and Means Committee. A spokeswoman for House Ways and Means Chairman Brian Dempsey said last week the bill is under review.
Social service workers at agencies around the state said they need help finding out who these kids are, and just how many of them are on the streets. They witness firsthand the jump in the number of teenagers living on their own.
Robb Zarges, executive director of Bridge Over Troubled Waters in Boston, said his organization has seen a 10 percent increase each year during the past three years, and went from helping approximately 2,200 kids a year to more than 2,600. At Bridge Over Troubled Waters, the 40-plus shelter beds the organization reserves for young people are full every night.
“We don’t really know the scope of the problem. We have to do a better job,” Zarges said. “One of the things we have learned, the McKinney-Vento numbers are very small. There is an enormous number that are not identifying.”
Lisa Goldsmith, a senior program director at DIAL/SELF Youth and Community Services in Greenfield in Franklin County, said she still gets somewhat surprised when her team meets a new young person, just when they think they are familiar with everyone in the area who is homeless.
“We continually see new youth. I think that is saying something right there. The problem is not going away,” Goldsmith said. “We keep meeting new youth who are experiencing homelessness.”
In rural areas, there are plenty of places to hide, Goldsmith said. Besides “couch surfing” from friend to friend they form small communities and camp in the woods together or find empty trailers.
“They can find places, and they just feel safer that way,” Goldsmith said.
The DIAL/SELF center becomes aware of them most often when they drop into the center to use the computer, or get a granola bar. Only after they get to know the staff, they confess their homeless status.
“They get to know us and start to trust us and that is really when they start to come forward,” Goldsmith said.
Along with the drop-in center, DIAL/SELF has a food pantry and a transitional living program, as well as ten units of Section 8 housing where young people can pay a third of their income toward rent for one-year stints. Sometimes the center buys a bus ticket for someone who has a family member in another part of the country who is willing to house them, Goldsmith said.
James Williams, director of children’s programs at the Center for Human Development (CHD) in Springfield, said that out of the 75 kids placed with foster families each night, 20 of them are “kids that are homeless, kids without family.”
The young homeless who CHD helps generally come from homes where there is abuse, drugs, alcohol, or neglect, Williams said. Some of the homeless kids were cared for in state custody, but leave care when they are old enough, he said. Then, it is often hard for them to find jobs or an affordable place to live.
“As soon as they leave, they realize the grass isn’t always very green,” Williams said. “They end up in shelters, or they end up bouncing from living room to living room.”
Jerrod, who did not want to give his last name, was one of those young adults who “couch surfed” for years.
He was 21 years old when he became homeless. His mother kicked him out, and put him on a plane from Florida to Boston. She told him to go live with his uncle, who he says beat him when he was a child. He stayed on his uncle’s couch for only three months. Then he was out on the streets, looking for a place to sleep and a way to eat every day.
He spent many nights at the Pine Street Inn in Boston, but found it unpleasant. He spent the next few months “shelter hopping.”
Sometimes living in the shelters is harder than sleeping on the streets, he said. Constant fights among shelter residents, drug use, and stealing make life unbearable. The few pieces of clothing he had were stolen.
Now, at 23, he is living at the Salvation Army in Central Square in Cambridge, hoping to squirrel away enough money for a new cell phone – his last one was stolen – so he can apply for a job as a dishwasher.