Joe Martinez stands in a commercial district of Fresno, clipboard in hand, ready to count any 18- to 24-year-olds who look like they might be homeless. He spots two kids near a dumpster, behind a bakery.
He keeps a tally on a form that lists various ways of identifying kids without shelter.
Martinez is an outreach coordinator for a homeless youth sanctuary in Fresno. In the past few years, he says he’s seen an increase in homeless kids and believes it has to do with the bad economy and fractured families. He says the federal government wants a sample count of homeless youth this year because no one knows just how many there are.
This year volunteers and others counted 130 homeless youth in Fresno. But Martinez says there are probably hundreds more young people on the streets that they didn’t find.
“They’re most likely to be staying in a place not fit for human habitation,” he says. “They’re sleeping in a park, sleeping in an abandoned building, or they’re sleeping in a vehicle.”
Martinez walks along the sidewalk with three other volunteers. Behind some businesses they meet two kids in their early 20s sitting against a brick wall.
An offer of snacks elicits enthusiasm. The two are in tattered and dirty clothing, their long fingernails packed with dirt. They tell the volunteers their names are Serena and Kirk and they agree to answer some survey questions.
Their few belongings - a sleeping bag, some clothing, and a sickly dog that has adopted them – are nearby. They say they sleep behind businesses or squat in abandoned houses. They never stay in shelters, they say.
Martinez asks Kirk if he’s ever abused alcohol or drugs. “I’ve drank away my sorrows from time to time,” Kirk tells him.
They say they worked in a nearby national park and were planning to travel widely. But then they got in trouble for having marijuana in their car. They lost their jobs. And the car broke down.
“Now we’re on the streets,” says Serena. “But we were sleeping in our car and that was cool.”
Serena and Kirk don’t consider themselves “homeless” – just travelers encountering a bout of bad luck.
Stories like this are not uncommon, according to Peggy Sung, who volunteers at the homeless youth sanctuary.
“For our notes, it is homeless if you don’t have a roof over your head at night,” Sung says.
For younger volunteers like Karen Jimenez, the youth homeless count was a bit jarring.
“It makes me think I should pay a little more attention to my surroundings and the people who need help,” says Jimenez, a college student.
At one point the volunteers try to engage a group of homeless kids standing around in a vacant lot. The kids don’t want to be interviewed; Martinez is not surprised. Someone in the group is probably scared to speak up.
“This person doesn’t trust anyone who represents authority or maybe any kind of government agency,” he says.
Before the team leaves the area, two volunteers go back to where Kirk was sitting to give him a pair of clean socks. They’re too late – Kirk and Serena have already left.