Paul Curtis directs the California Coalition for Youth, an advocacy organization based in Sacramento that also runs the state’s youth crisis line. He says youth often have trouble accessing child welfare benefits and services for the general homeless population, and questions how much the new budget deal will benefit youth living on the streets. (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)
Update, June 30, 12:17 p.m: The state legislature gave final approval today to allocate an additional $10 million specifically for homeless youth emergency services over the next five years. Assembly Republicans negotiated the budget increase for shelters, food and counseling for homeless youth -- the first one in over 15 years -- as part of the No Place Like Home bond, which provides $2 billion for supportive housing for homeless individuals with mental illness. Governor Brown is expected to sign the measure.
The Wind Youth Services drop-in center for homeless youth in Sacramento is busiest during lunch time. The air conditioned house in the city's Oak Park neighborhood has a couple of showers, free meals and a small staff of case managers and counselors. During the day, teens and young adults let themselves in to get cleaned up, rest on the living room couches, and see about potential housing.
Timon Curtis has been a frequent visitor since he ran away from home. He'd had enough of his family, he says.
"I’ve been abused, neglected, treated like mess," says Timon, 18. "Been called names such as stupid, dumb retarded. Telling me I’d never make it, and that nobody will take me for who I am."
Timon slept in a random laundry room for months, and dropped out of high school. Then someone told him about the center. From there, he began staying at an overnight shelter he trusts, the only one dedicated for homeless youth in the county.
Timon can stay in the shelter for three months. But case managers back at the drop-in center are helping find him permanent housing.
"If this wasn’t here, I’d probably be going to people on the streets asking for money, panhandling, trying to get some food," he says.
Instead, Timon is trying to get a job and go back to high school. He dreams of becoming a radio show host one day, and works diligently writing hip-hop lyrics and recording music.
In a way, Timon was lucky to land a bed at all. The county-funded shelter has just a total of 6 beds for 18- to 24-year-olds.
'Intense Need' for Homeless Youth Shelters
While this year's state budget deal includes money set aside for housing and bolsters social safety net programs, advocates question how much of those dollars will actually benefit young people living on the streets. Teens and young adults face barriers to accessing services for the wider homeless population, they say.
Most California counties -- 38 out of 58 -- lack services for homeless youth, according to a 2011 survey by the California Homeless Youth Project. The programs and shelters in the remaining 20 counties are strapped, says Shahera Hyatt, director of the California Homeless Youth Project.
At Timon's shelter in Sacramento, demand outstrips supply, and there's a months-long waiting list, says Anne Salvatori, from Wind Youth Services, which runs the shelter.
"On a bad day, ... I would say (we get) between five and 10 calls for youth seeking shelter. Some with babies and kids, some without," says Salvatori, 38. "[We] have to tell them, 'Oh gosh, there’s a wait list.' "
California has the largest share of unaccompanied homeless youth in the country -- more than 10,000 people under age 25 not accompanied by a parent, 28 percent of the national total, according to a federal study.
Homeless teens are often fleeing abuse at home. But living on the streets is not safer, says Salvatori. "From rape to being jumped. A lot of times people get their stuff stolen in the middle of the night," she says. "We had a youth that was sleeping on the streets, and somebody dropped a cinder block on his head while he was sleeping in the middle of the night."
Advocates Worry Not Enough Funds Devoted To Homeless Youth
Top state legislators say they are helping these efforts by making key investments to fight homelessness in the new budget agreement, which Gov. Jerry Brown has yet to sign. Those include $45 million for sheltering the general population on the streets, and $22 million to prevent homelessness in poor families.
But advocates say that youth are being shortchanged since they benefit the most from programs that target their specific age group, instead of the general homeless population.
"Our concern is how much of that will specifically go towards serving homeless youth," says Paul Curtis, with the non-profit California Coalition for Youth. "It all depends how it’s going to be implemented."
Homeless youth on their own often fail to qualify for child welfare, and they won't go to programs for the older chronically homeless because they don't feel safe, he says.
"They look at the adult homeless population, and they don’t identify with them. And we often don't want them to go into those adult programs. It can be older chronic homeless adults and there's potential for exploitation and abuse," says Curtis.
Curtis' coalition advocated for lawmakers to set aside more funds for the Homeless Youth and Exploitation Program, the only dedicated state funding for shelters, food, counseling and other short term services aimed at youth exiting street life who might also be victims of sexual exploitation. The program has received about $1 million annually in state funding for over 15 years.
An Assembly budget proposal to add over $12 million to the funding fell through last week during negotiations with the governor's office and senate, says Assemblymember Phil Ting, D-San Francisco.
"We fought for it, but we just weren’t able to get it across the finish line," says Ting. "We did a lot for homelessness. I personally would like to do even more, but we have financial constraints."