Never too young to be homeless

“I’ve had guns and knives pulled on me. I’ve been stabbed a few times. My nose has been broken more than a dozen times. But I’ve also put people in the hospital myself”

It’s five a.m. in Minneapolis under the overhang of an abandoned building. It’s cold and damp from the morning dew. Most teenagers still have a few hours left to sleep, but not Mack, a 19-year-old runaway from Portland, Oregon. His life is far from average.

His bedtime is when he feels safe enough to sleep.

His alarm clock is the sun.

His only transportation is his feet and freight trains.

“I’m homeless,” Mack said. “I have been on and off since I was 14.”

An estimated 550 to 650 Minnesota youth ages 17 and under are homeless on any given night, according to a 2006 Wilder Foundation report. In addition, the report estimates there are 1,300 young adults (18-21) who experience homelessness on an average night. Although the Wilder survey shows that the number of homeless young people in Minnesota has stayed consistent the past few years, other resources show fluctuation in the number.

“Particularly in the summer we see homeless teens, when they are homeless by choice, wandering and just being punk kids,” said Rob Czernik, the ad-hoc organizer of Sisters of Camelot, which provides free food to homeless people in Minneapolis. “There are lots of kids who have been kicked out of their houses. A lot of kids because of being gay or lesbian find themselves being disowned by their families.”

Many reasons for homelessness

Factors leading to homelessness vary. According to the Wilder study, 63 percent of the homeless teen population said fighting frequently with parents or guardians is their main motivation to leave. Other reasons include: parental neglect, violence in the house, sexual abuse, pregnancy and sexual orientation.

The Bridge in south Minneapolis, which was started in 1970 by two nuns, was one of the first youth crisis centers nationwide.

“The main mission or philosophy of The Bridge is to help resolve family conflicts, provide shelter for youth and provide counseling services with no charge to anyone,” said Nikki Beasley, emergency service program supervisor at The Bridge.

The Bridge’s goal is to reunite youth with their families. But for reasons that aren’t clear, their success rate (of reuniting families) dropped from 80 percent in 2005 to 74 percent in 2006. Also, The Bridge has been experiencing an increase in the number of youth coming in for help.

Homelessness isn’t apparent by looking at someone. Young people ages 21 and under are some of the least visible and most vulnerable segments of persons who are homeless, according to the Wilder study.

“There would be no way to know anything was wrong with these kids unless they opened their mouth and told you,” Beasley said. “They look like regular kids.”

Help is limited

With demand for youth shelters, outreach centers and other youth programs increasing, the Minnesota Legislature this year appropriated $1 million to fund the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act. This provides $500,000 annually for two years to improve and expand emergency shelters, supportive/transitional housing and street and community outreach.

For nearly 30 years, Sisters of Camelot has been distributing pure organic food to needy people. Four times a week all the food, workers and volunteers load onto their bus, which was decorated as a community art project. They stop the bus, covered in orange, blue and green paintings, and allow anybody — including homeless teens — to shop. They travel to Chicago Avenue, Franklin Avenue, the North Side and other areas.

No questions asked. No strings attached.

“Our ultimate goal as a group would be to put ourselves out of business,” Czernik said. “It would mean that there wouldn’t be people in need of food anymore.”

Life on the streets requires street smarts and a sense of protection. Forty-eight percent of homeless teens have been physically abused, according to Wilder.

“I’ve had guns and knives pulled on me. I’ve been stabbed a few times. My nose has been broken more than a dozen times. But I’ve also put people in the hospital myself,” said Quill, a 22-year-old runaway from Oregon who travels with Pancake, a Collie/German Shepard mix.

On the streets, homeless teens know the fittest survive.

“I’ve been in a lot of fights,” Mack said. “You have to fight to survive out here. If you don’t fight to survive you’ll die. Someone will kill you.”

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