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By Staci McMaster

Photo: Tampa HCHU

Two young men sit on the steps of the Denton County courthouse. Their disheveled appearance and dreadlocks cause a few people to stare before walking on. One of these young men, Danny*, leans his head down as he strums on the guitar he holds in his lap. When he looks up, his eyes are clear and with a tiny glint of mischievousness, he lifts his chin in a nonchalant greeting.

“Hey there,” he says. “Been working on a new song. You want to hear?”

The ease in his voice suggests he and his friends are just hanging out on the steps, watching the world go by without a care in the world. This observation couldn’t be farther from the truth. Danny and his friends are just a few of Denton’s homeless youth, a group of kids with a dim future and no place to go.

“I grew up around here,” he tells me. “Not too far from here. Things got a little tough at home, and I decided to crash with some friends. That lasted for a little while until I had no place to go. This is where I ended up.”

Danny’s day is pretty much the same. Sometimes, if it’s not too cold, he and the group he hangs with sleep outside. There are shelters here in the city, but resources are limited. They can get a meal at the Salvation Army. Residents on the Square are used to seeing them around. I bought Danny a slice of pizza, and we sat down to chat.

“I’d like to go to school, maybe get a job, but I’m not sure what I want to do,” he told me. “This life, you just sort of fall into it. In the beginning, it’s sort of cool. No rules, no one to bother you. You can do what you want. But this life? It’s hard. Where am I going to eat today? How will I get clean? No one means to end up homeless. It just…happens.”

Across America, the number of homeless youth is on the rise. In 2013, the Department of Housing and Urban Development called for communities to conduct a youth-inclusive count that would include unaccompanied homeless youth, up to 24-years-old. According to Part 1 of HUD’s 2014 Annual Homeless Assessment Report, 194,302 youth and children were homeless on a single night in 2014. This figure is down 1% from the previous year. However, given the difficulty of counting homeless youth, that estimate is likely low.

Homeless does not only describe people who live out on the street with no roof over their head. The homeless population includes men, women and children who do not have a permanent residence. Because of circumstances, they end up living with friends or relatives. They lack the monetary resources to obtain and keep some form of permanent housing.

Counting America’s displaced youth is a particular problem. The youth population has a tendency to move around more than their older counterparts. They are less likely to reach out for help or disclose their situation. They will try harder to blend in with peers that are settled.

“Unsheltered youth tend to avoid contact with adults, camp in discreet locations, move frequently and bypass available services,” according to a 2012 Texas Interagency Council for the Homeless report. “This makes homeless youth extremely difficult to identify.”

“I don’t really like for people to know I’m living on the street. I’ve been called lazy. People have told me to get a job. It’s not that I don’t want to. But how do you work when you have no place to live?” said Danny.

Because of their age, kids like Danny have trouble even getting a start. Many have left home at an early age without proper identification. These youth become displaced because of unsafe home environments. Kids that have been passed around the foster system find it easier to go it alone. An increasing number of LGBT kids find themselves on the street as they run away from discrimination and abuse.

Infographic: Behance.net

A new documentary, The Homestrech, follows three teens living on the streets in Chicago. The gap between adolescence and adulthood is examined as these teens attempt to graduate from high school while moving through emergency shelters and transitional homes on the way to graduation. The film, which explores the larger issues of poverty, race, juvenile justice, immigration, foster care, and LGBTQ rights, premiered on Independent Lens on Monday, April 13, 2015, at 10:00 p.m. Eastern on PBS.

Shelter in Denton

Shelter in Denton

There is work to be done here. So how can we help? Journey to Dream is a faith-based organization in Lewisville that equips and empowers teens to overcome adversity. The nonprofit organization focuses on helping teens avoid destructive behaviors and building healthy values.

Danny scoffs a little bit. “I don’t want to be ending up in any church either,” he says. “It’s not that I don’t believe in God, but I need it to be mine. I’m afraid if I go in there, I won’t be able to be me.”

The Texas Interagency Council for the Homeless is a state agency that tracks and records the number of displaced citizens in Texas. Their annual report includes a breakdown of costs and causes of homelessness along with a list of initiatives to help people become self-sufficient and put a roof over their head.

Danny finishes his pizza and looks outside to where his friends are laughing on the courthouse steps.

“I’m not going to be out here forever. I know I’ll have somewhere to go. I won’t give up. I can’t. We all have each other right now, but we won’t be here forever.”