Three homeless youth pass the time in The Pit in Harvard Square, not far from their sleeping area in Cambridge Common and only a little farther from the strained Youth on Fire shelter. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Many move to the area with the promise of opportunities in jobs and education, but find those promises evaporate once they arrive. They turn to other avenues to make enough food to live and eat. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Most people wake up thinking: “What am I going to do today?” But not Jennifer Park.

“Once we wake up, we are like ‘Where are we gonna sleep tonight?’” said Park, 20. (Her name has been changed for this story to protect her privacy.) “That’s like our main goal.”

On most nights, Park ends up sleeping in Cambridge Common, along with other homeless youth. During the day, they hang out under a tree, playing a drum, smoking cigarettes or just laying around.

They represent an increasingly significant issue for Cambridge and the state. Massachusetts state education officials counted 13,090 homeless students last year, an 85 percent increase from 2005. Cambridge’s public schools reported 379 homeless students in the 2009-10 school year. Nationally, about 110,000 youth aged 12 to 24 live on the streets, according the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.

These numbers, though, “severely undercount the need,” said Leslie Lawrence, associate director for the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, arguing that most estimates on homeless youth account only for those connected to services, shelters or school support programs and exclude those who drop out of school or choose to remain unconnected to services and shelters.

Youth such as Park struggle not only for a place to sleep, but for their next meal and for shelter in harsh weather. Yet homeless youth in Massachusetts can hope for help. In July, House Bill 1862, “An Act Providing Housing and Support Services for Unaccompanied Homeless Youth,” was presented at the Statehouse to the Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities.

The bill aims to establish a program providing housing options, helping youth reunite with parents or legal guardians and offering support services such as counseling, access to health care and employment referrals. The program would get $5 million from the state, with 20 percent aimed specifically at homeless youth attending high school or alternative educational programs. Lawrence expected the committee to act on it within a few weeks, and anticipates “a favorable response.”

In Cambridge, City Manager Robert W. Healy was asked in December by the City Council to meet with officials at Youth on Fire, a nonprofit based at a Massachusetts Avenue church near Cambridge Common, and produce a report on “possible options for providing more support for the homeless youth in Cambridge.”

The order was submitted by all nine councillors and adopted. In August, nothing had been reported back.

Van Purcell and John Parks with state Rep. Carl Sciortino of Somerville, right, who attended a March 11 open house of AIDS Action Committee’s Youth on Fire center for homeless youth. Purcell and Parks spoke at the event about their experiences with homelessness. (Photo: Youth on Fire)

More youth, fewer resources

Youth on Fire is the only drop-in center specifically for youth in Cambridge, and it is facing some challenges.

“In the last fiscal year, Youth on Fire served 850 homeless young adults. This is a 340 percent increase in utilization in the last four years,” said Ayala Livny, the Youth on Fire program manager, in written testimony supporting the House bill. “We are seeing more and more youth with less and less support and resources.  The program itself has been asked to provide more service and supports with less resources and funding.”

There was also a stabbing at the facility July 26. In response, Youth on Fire instituted a 15-person limit inside the center and a per-person time limit. A camera was installed in the upstairs hallway where the stabbing took place. More volunteers and staff members will join Youth on Fire next month in order for the center to start operating at previous capacity.

“The positive outcome to this negative incident is that it showed us what we have to change and improve on. And that’s what we are doing,” said Michael May, outreach coordinator at Youth on Fire.

The accused and the victim are part of the community of homeless youth who use the shelter’s services frequently. “We all basically know each other because we are all homeless,” explained a another of the city’s young homeless, Tracy Singleton, “but I haven’t gotten into fights, not yet. I try to stay away from that. It doesn’t help me.”

Singleton, 20, is originally from Philadelphia. He attended a trade school in Springfield before coming here. “I had a lot of friends in Boston that told me, ‘You should come to Boston, because of opportunities,’” Singleton said.

He moved to Cambridge in December and lived with a friend until he got behind on paying the rent. Now Singleton is forced to live on the streets, where there is little opportunity for studying. “I don’t [go to school], but I’m looking to go to Bunker Hill Community College to study either nursing or computers,” said Singleton, who faces a common problem for homeless youth: wanting to study, but lacking the resources to do it.

Park also came to Boston in search of better things.  “Everyone else [in my family] liked living in the country and stuff like that,” she said. “I was like, ‘There is so much more of a bigger world out there, so many opportunities. I’m going to move to Boston because of all the opportunities.’”

Instead, she has been homeless for two years. “It’s hard being homeless, and like, being young,” she said. “Because I feel like people expect for you to have parents, or for you to have somewhere to go, or friends to help you, but it’s not that easy.”

“I don’t want to live outside anymore”

Johnny Balmer left home because of a difficult relationship with his parents. “I got into a bunch of trouble during eighth grade and I wasn’t allowed to go back to public school. My parents sent me to boarding school in North Carolina, and then in Middleborough. But the program wasn’t working for me so I turned 18 and dropped out. That’s when we stopped talking,” Balmer said.

After three and a half years, Balmer just recently re-established contact. “I don’t want to live outside anymore. But I have to work slowly, because we are just mending ties now. I don’t want to rush into it,”he said.

Since he’s not attending school, Balmer finds other ways to pursue his academic interests. “I do a lot of independent study. I go to the library and find something interesting and read about it. History, science, novels sometimes. I’m currently reading ‘On Guerrilla Warfare’ by Mao Zedong,” he said.

Park does not attend school either. Instead, she works as a nanny, as she has for the past four years. She finds work through sites such as care.com and citysitter.com. But finding work is not easy, she said. “It’s really hard for people to take you seriously, because of my age,” Park said.

Resources to help youth find work exist, in centers such as Youth on Fire and Bridge Over Troubled Waters in Boston. Yet Park was not aware of these or similar governmental programs. The only support she gets is through food stamps, which she and her boyfriend depend on.

Singleton and Balmer, on the other hand, do take advantage of the resources at Youth on Fire. Both go often for meals and to do laundry. Singleton said he was aware of the House bill presented last month, “but I don’t know what happened afterward.”

If you are homeless, a runaway or a street-involved youth in Cambridge and need help, call Youth on Fire toll-free at (877) 661-2508 or Bridge Over Trouble Waters in Boston at (617) 423-9575.