Cold Streets

James was 17 years old when he left home in 1998. Two years later, he still hasn't gone back. He found himself failing a couple of classes in his junior year of high school. He didn't know how to tell his parents about his situation, so he went to a friend's house to cool off and prepare for the eventual confrontation with his mom and stepdad.When James called his mom to explain where he was, she was furious. "My mom told me to 'either come home right now or don't come home at all,'" James remembers. He chose not to go home.James is one of thousands of this country's homeless youth. While he did find shelter at a friend's house, he fits the definition of homeless youth because he has no permanent place to call home with adult supervision.Tina Carlson, 26, is an outreach worker for the Sweetser Homeless Youth Program in Saco, Maine. Carlson says it's hard to pinpoint exact how many youth in this country don't have a place to call home because many of them work very hard to find shelter."You're usually not going to see them on the street or sleeping under a bridge," she says. "These kids will do a lot to have a place to stay. They're fairly invisible."According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, about 25 percent of this country's homeless population is under the age of 25, and 3 percent are classified as "unaccompanied minors," a fancy way of saying under-18 and living without an adult. The National Center for Homeless Education estimated that there were more than 600,000 homeless youth in 1998.Carlson says that many of these unsupervised teens become "couch surfers," or kids who move from friend's house to friend's house, never really staying in one place for very long.The program Carlson works with targets homeless youth ages 6 to 20, but the average age of her clients is 17. Carlson's main goal is to connect homeless youth with programs and services within their community to get their basic needs met, like food, clothing, education, medical care, and counseling -- and whatever else they may need.A big problem Carlson faces is getting access to the community programs. Doctors, landlords, and school officials sometimes won't help homeless kids because they assume that if a kid is homeless, she must be bad news and totally irresponsible, Carlson says."The myth is that this is a population of kids who don't want a family or just refuse to get along," Carlson says. "That's just not the case. They're kids living in an adult world, but the world is saying 'you may be [parentless], but you're not 18, so you can't receive these services,'" she says.When kids decide to run, they usually don't think about what to bring with them, Carlson says. While they're probably busy packing their favorite clothes or CD's, she says, they should be grabbing their social security card and birth certificate, because without those documents, it's difficult to apply for health insurance, or to receive any kind of social services.In fact, if a homeless teen wants to go to school, she might find it impossible to do so. According to a report by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, barriers like reliable transportation, residency requirements, birth certificates, and immunization records often keep teens from attending or enrolling for school. And even if they're enrolled, Carlson says, it's tough to get them to show up each day.Unfortunately, for many of these homeless youth, Carlson says, school is very low down on their list of priorities. "It gets pretty hard at age 16 to think about going to school every day and working a full-time job because you have to pay for a place to live," she says.There's no one around to get them up in the morning or to make sure they're doing their homework, and the teens are often very tired in the morning because they usually stay up pretty late at night, Carlson says. James has no regrets about leaving home, and is sure he'll never go back. He got his grades up and graduated from high school, and is working hard to keep himself together. He said while he's confident he made the right choice about leaving, he admitted he's sometimes jealous of his friends because they "have parents to take care of them and they have that bond."Carlson said that the kids she works with are not that different from any other teen today. "When you hear of all the things that homeless teens need, it's not that different from what we all need," Carlson says. "Everyone needs a stable place to live. If you don't have that, everything changes. All of the kids I work with had hopes and dreams at one point, but some have been out on their own for so long that they've lost [them]."If you'd like to find out how you can help -- or to receive help -- contact the National Coalition for the Homeless at (800) 635-0861 or (202) 737-6444. In Canada, contact Youth Without Shelter at (416)748-0110.Kathy Labuski is a freelance writer based in Maine. This article originally appeared on ChickClick's teen channel, MissClick (www.missclick.com)

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