Dylan Helberg is 18 and says he has not slept in a bed in three years.
During that time he has slept on couches at his mother’s home and friends’ apartments. For a short time, he slept outside in a park across from a school in Dallas.
When he closes his eyes at night, he tries not to think about his peripatetic childhood, where he crisscrossed the country with his mom after his father went to jail. Instead, he thinks about the stars, and far-away galaxies, and eventually visualizes what he longs for most: a bedroom with a door that he can close to regain a sense of privacy and dignity.
“It’s lonely. I just find myself sitting by myself thinking about sleeping in a bed. I have no privacy. I have my clothes in a duffel bag — the same clothes I’ve had for almost four years,” said Helberg, who is soft-spoken, wears his jeans low-slung below his waist, and wants to get his high school diploma this year or next.
Although he has a temporary place to sleep on a friend’s couch in Salem, Helberg is still considered homeless by the state and falls into a fast-growing category that he would prefer not to belong to: He is one of an estimated 6,000 students attending high school who lack a permanent residence.
Students like Helberg who are 18 and over straddle a gray category in the state’s financial assistance program. Unlike homeless families that can turn to the state for a hotel room or a subsidized apartment, there are no funds or state agencies set up for older students who are homeless and still in high school.
Although they may be eligible for food stamps and could start an application for Section 8 housing that may take years to complete, their only immediate housing option is finding a bed in a homeless shelter, “couch surfing,’’ or sleeping outside.
“This is an invisible population,” explained Jessica Yurwitz, principal of the Salem Community Charter School, which Helberg has attended since last year. Yurwitz said at least 40 percent of the school’s 50 students are homeless or have been homeless in the past. The school offers mental health and job counseling, and encourages students to work so they can pay monthly rent in shared apartments. It also tries to reunite kids with their families.
“We know that sexual abuse and domestic violence are two main reasons why kids run away from home,” said Danielle Ferrier, executive director of Rediscovery, a nonprofit that runs YouthHarbors, a counseling service that has offices in high schools in Malden, Somerville, Everett, and Boston Day and Evening Academy.
Other reasons for becoming homeless at an early age run the gamut from family poverty to simple arguments, she said. Often if YouthHarbors cannot persuade a parent to allow a child back into the home, the organization will pay for a room in a stranger’s home so the student can finish high school.
According to the National Network for Youth, 73 percent of homeless students will be forced to drop out of high school, increasing their risk of falling victim to physical or sexual violence, committing a crime, or dying. Now in its fifth year, YouthHarbors estimates that 96 percent of its participants have either graduated or are on track to graduate from high school.
In Lynn, where 348 homeless students went to high school last year, another nonprofit, The Haven Project, has served as an anchor for kids without homes. Gini Mazman, Haven’s program director, has been able to find beds for some students at the local YMCA and at the Lynn Home for Women, but she said the options are limited.
In a second-floor office on Monroe Street, homeless students trickle in and out on late afternoons. There she provides food and counseling, and tells homeless students to find a part-time job to help pay for a room or an apartment.
Couch surfing, she said, has its benefits — such as keeping people out of the cold — but also can turn dangerous. “Sometimes they’re allowed to stay in places in exchange for sex; it’s pretty common,” she said.
On a recent afternoon in the Haven office, Mazman handed Eric Beasley a slice of pizza. Beasley, who is 20, has been couch surfing and sleeping in a shelter since he was kicked out of his grandparents’ home following an argument. At the time, he made his way to the Lynn Emergency Shelter. Weekday mornings, he rose at 4:30 and walked from downtown Lynn to Revere to catch an early bus to his technical high school in Wakefield.
He is grateful for being allowed to stay in the shelter, but said it is the antithesis of how a high school senior should spend his nights. “It’s not like I could sit down and study and do my homework there,” said Beasley, who hopes to go to art school next year.
In Salem, Helberg walks a few miles to his job at a burger joint and also works as a carpenter in the Point section. Lately he has been helping to build Habitat for Humanity houses.
He does not assign blame to anyone else for his living situation, and he is determined to enter the military or go to college.
In a windowless set of classrooms tucked behind a staircase at a downtown Salem mall, there is no talk about Christmas. The holidays seem to be the last thing on anyone’s mind. Helberg passes his time thinking about astronomy and his future. Another student, Tammy Clark, thinks about a future on stage, as a singer and actress. When school is over, she relaxes in a modest room near the school that she almost considers a luxury.
“I’m not going to let my demons take over my life,” said Clark, who is 21. She had been homeless for most of the last decade until the Community Charter School helped her find a room with a bed last spring.
If anyone could be excused for giving up on school, Clark would qualify. Her strongest recollection of her early years is moving from apartment to apartment with her mother, who was a crack cocaine addict.
“A lot of my schooling was a blur to me. When somebody is homeless and when you’re really young, it’s not easy to identify your surroundings, and that’s frustrating” she said.
When Clark was around 8, her mother joined a gang and they moved to Brooklyn. Between age 9 and 12, she said, she was sexually abused and beaten by her mother’s boyfriend.
When she was 12 and 13 — before her mother went to prison — she spent her nights on the streets of Lynn and Peabody.
“I used to linger around because there was nowhere to go,” she said.
From there, Clark was sent to her grandmother’s home in Maine, and when she was 18, she was thrown out of the house after accusing her grandmother of being an alcoholic.
Homeless, she ran off with a man she barely knew. “He ended up brutally raping me,” said Clark, who said she swallowed pills and tried to kill herself after the attack.
She found her way back to Salem, and for the next two years slept on relatives’ floors and couches. She enrolled at the charter school in 2012.
These days, she is determined not to allow her past to define herself. “When I wake up in my room, I realize I have a warm bed and I feel like I’m safe and secure,” she said. “I’m not used to it.”