Metro

Boston’s battle against youth homelessness gets a big boost

Boston, MA--7/17/2018-- Five month old Atlas Arnos (C) charms Mayor Walsh as his mother, Lauren Leonardis, holds him during a press conference held to announce a $5 million grant to combat youth homelessness at Bridge Over Troubled Waters, which provides youth homeless services in Boston. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff) Topic: 18homeless Reporter:
Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
Five-month-old Atlas Arnos charmed Mayor Walsh as his mother, Lauren Leonardis, held him during a press conference to announce a $5 million grant to combat youth homelessness in Boston.

Stephanie Ford was living on the streets at age 15, and she has bounced among homeless shelters ever since.

Only recently has Ford begun to have hope, benefiting from an increasing recognition by city officials of the 360 or so youths and young adults living on Boston’s streets.

“I am no longer an idea, I am a person,” said Ford, 25, who said she gained confidence from her work on a recently formed Boston Youth Action Board that seeks solutions to youth homelessness.

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The city’s strategy received a significant boost Tuesday, winning $4.9 million in federal funding, the largest grant of its kind the city has received.

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Boston was one of only 11 communities nationwide to receive funding from the $43 million awarded under a Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program, which is run by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“We do not accept young people living on the streets, or living in shelters,” Jemine Bryon, deputy assistant secretary for special needs for HUD, said during a news conference Tuesday.

Mayor Martin J. Walsh added, “For too long this issue has been an invisible one.

“That’s just not acceptable, not acceptable in our city,” he said. “They need to get their lives back, and this grant offers that opportunity to get their lives back.”

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Over the last year, the city has reached out to an often overlooked demographic: youth homelessness. And with that emphasis comes a recognition that there are a disproportionately affected number of homeless youths who identify as gay, lesbian, or transgender.

On any given night, according to city figures, roughly 360 unaccompanied youths and young adults in Boston are believed to be homeless. That’s not including young adults who bounce from one relative’s or friend’s couch to another each night and have not been identified by social service providers.

Laila Bernstein, deputy director at the city’s Department of Neighborhood Services, who was tasked in 2016 to oversee the city’s Initiatives to End Chronic Homelessness, said officials realized early on that the city would have to carry out a separate strategy to address youth homelessness, due to that population’s unique needs.

A youth could be temporarily homeless because he or she did not finish high school and has difficulty getting a first job or because of a sudden breakdown with a parent or guardian, Bernstein said. He or she likely has no credit or renting history, making it more difficult to get an apartment.

Providing immediate resources, whether they be educational programs or mentorships, could help a youth more quickly transition to stable housing — and avoid long-term housing struggles in adult life, she said.

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“If they get access to education and employment and a safe place to be, with mentors, their strengths will take over, and they will find the path,” Bernstein said.

Advocates said that one of the more alarming demographics within youth homelessness is the disproportionately large number who identify as gay, lesbian, or transgender, whose homelessness, in some cases, may have followed their decision to come out.

More than 20 percent of youths who are homeless in Boston identify as gay, lesbian, or transgender, according to advocates who work with that population. The portion is higher when LGBT youths are from racial and ethnic minority groups.

In August, BAGLY — the Boston Alliance of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Youth — plans to open a drop-in center for youths in Court Square, in the heart of downtown, offering services such as health screenings, job training, and housing programs for those at risk of living alone on the street.

“As people are coming out younger and younger, you don’t have that cover of the closet, and so a bad environment can get worse,” said Neal Minahane, president of BAGLY’s board of directors. “One of the things we’ve been working on is how do we address those needs.”

Last year, Bernstein and other officials identified youths — including Stephanie Ford – to serve on a communitywide task force. The Youth Action Board includes homeless and formerly homeless youths, who, along with housing, education, and job training advocates, are charged with developing an overall strategy to address youth homelessness.

That strategy will be finalized in the next several months and ultimately implemented with the federal funding, city officials said.

The effort has received the support of youths and young adults, such as Ford, who has struggled since her mother went on medical disability 10 years ago and her family lost their apartment. She celebrated the grant announcement Tuesday.

“People are starting to realize it’s an actual problem,” she said.

Zarie L., 20, who identifies as agender and declined to give a last name, citing privacy reasons, said people may not realize that young people can lose a home quickly because of an issue with a job, or, in Zarie’s case, an issue with parents.

“A lot of youth who come out to their parents deal with that,” Zarie said.

Ominique Garner, 23, who also serves on the Youth Action Board, said that even in cases in which a youth can obtain housing, he or she may not have the resources to keep that home.

“And then you’re back homeless,” she said.

Milton J. Valencia can be reached at milton.valencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.