On the Streets with Manchester's Homeless Teens

Street life is no dream (and little sleep) for homeless teens in the Queen City.
Without a place to sleep, many homeless teens wander the street at night rather than appear homeless.

Seth is 18 years old. He loves to read books, knit and hang out with his friends. His lifelong dream is to be a beautician, and his favorite animal is the elephant. In many ways, Seth is a typical teenager. He makes friends easily, smiles often and has a joke ready for any situation. “I try to make the best out of everything,” he says. “I don’t like feeling sad. I like being happy.”

Each morning, Seth shows up at 326 Lincoln St. in Manchester. And at the end of each day, he walks back to his hidden tent in the woods, where he’ll spend the night trying to stay warm.

Seth is one of hundreds of Manchester teenagers who are known by many labels: “at risk,” “experiencing housing instability,” “displaced” — in a word, homeless. For teenagers, this is a hard word to define. When people picture homelessness, they picture a person living on the street, sleeping underneath blankets on the pavement. But that isn’t the picture of youth homelessness that we see today. 

Instead, homeless teens sleep in cars and tents, or “couch surf,” jumping from one friend’s house to another. These kids are not homeless in a visible way, which makes numbering them difficult. The latest police count found around 300 homeless teens, but Child and Family Services in Manchester (CFS) estimates the number is closer to 750. CFS Case Manager David Harris thinks this a matter of semantics. “How do you define homelessness? There are the people out on the street, the people in their cars, but then there are lots of people doubled up with their friends … depending on what definition you use, you’ll get different numbers.”

There are many misconceptions about homelessness. New Hampshire is not a state that people associate with urban city centers, nor the problems that accompany population density. New Hampshire is the second most forested state in the US, and 40 percent of its population lives in rural areas. But the city of Manchester, which covers less than 1 percent of the land in New Hampshire but makes up 10 percent of our total population, is the largest city in northern New England. And a third of Manchester’s residents are living in poverty, with that number rising to more than half in some inner city neighborhoods. 

For homeless teens, it all comes down to sleep. “I don’t really get to pick the hours I sleep. It really depends on the situation,” says Matt, a homeless 18-year-old. He has a 3.6 GPA in high school but is unable to attend due to his lack of car, home, and access to reliable shut-eye. Sleep is critically important for growing teenage bodies, yet homeless teens get less than anyone. For them, sleeping means opening themselves up to theft, abuse or incarceration. A homeless teen is most vulnerable when he or she is asleep.  

Many nights, Matt goes to 24-hour fast-food restaurants such as McDonald’s or Dunkin’ Donuts to sit out the night.  “I don’t like doing it, but otherwise it’s outside,” he says. 

James, who recently found transitional housing, visits the "404" Youth Center for a creative break.

According to another homeless youth, Daniel, others have a different strategy — staying awake. “Some people choose not to sleep for days at a time, just staying out throughout the night … putting themselves in situations they shouldn’t — just to have a place to be.”

CFS Street Outreach Case Manager Jodi Hartke is straightforward about the problem: “There is no place for young people that are homeless to sleep.” Most shelters in Manchester are for people 18 and up; minors are legally supposed to be sleeping at the house of a parent or guardian. For teens who are kicked out, struggling with drug addiction or escaping abuse, this is often not an option.  CFS Program Director Erin Kelly says, “They can’t sleep outside and tell anybody they’re sleeping outside without a parent or legal guardian because that’s a call to DCYF,” says Kelly, referring to the Division of Children, Youth and Families.

DCYF is dedicated to protecting and placing juveniles. But many teenagers fear the loss of their independence and the control that DCYF has over their future. “They don’t want to become system-involved,” explains Kelly. Some of them have had bad experiences with foster care and prefer to take their chances sleeping in cars.

“I think there’s a lack of services for youth in Manchester,” says CSF outreach worker Brennan Connors. Many of these kids seem to be in limbo, too young to be eligible or developmentally ready for the adult services available but too old to want the government to choose a foster family for them. 

Because homeless teens don’t want to get system-involved, they try to be invisible, which isn’t difficult for the homeless. Many of them don’t have cell phones or addresses where they can receive mail, so when staff are worried about a client and need to reach out to them, they look for them where anyone finds teenagers: on social media. Facebook is a popular way for case managers to check in on clients or for homeless kids to find a friend’s place to sleep that night.  Social media and technology have become such crucial tools for at-risk youth, there are now apps using location tracking to help kids find services in their area.

The Street Outreach Team at Child and Family Services also tracks teens off-line. 

“Just wait for a break in traffic and hop over,” shouts Harris as he climbs over a guardrail and runs across several lanes toward an underpass. Each day, CFS staffers Harris and Connors don bright-red jackets that say “Outreach” and go out into the community. The street outreach team is geared towards educating the homeless community and the Manchester community at large about the services available at their youth center. 

After getting over the second guardrail, the outreach team finds the trail they were looking for, cut through tall grass and marked by cardboard boxes and shopping carts. Leaves crunch underfoot, and droning truck engines and the treble of sirens can be heard in the background. Every dozen feet or so, a side trail leads to a clearing with tarps, tents, and fire rings, echoing summer camp. But this is very clearly not a retreat for anyone, and the weather is beginning to turn cold in these temporary communities.

Harris yells, “Outreach!” in a loud voice as we approach, and Connors explains, “we yell out when we’re approaching the site because these are their homes — we don’t just welcome ourselves in.” No one answers, and, after a minute, they leave a CFS card, a bottle of water and a couple snacks where they know they will be seen.

Most homeless teens avoid tent cities, opting, like Seth, for a more remote spot if they can find one. And according to friends, “Seth has a lit tent.” For those born before 1995, this means “cool.” One thing about homeless teens is that, despite all the struggles they deal with on a day-to-day basis, style does matter. “I’m homeless, but I don’t need to look homeless,” says Seth, sporting a pressed button-down shirt and top ponytail.  “I love to dress nice.” 

Seth spent some time at the Sununu Youth Services Center, a juvenile detention center. Most teens fear going into what they call “lock-up,” but Seth wishes he could go back. “I had a routine, and it was structured, and that’s what I needed.” For homeless teens, who sleep in a different place each night and move from school to school or job to job, routine is nonexistent.

One place kids can go for some structure is the CFS Youth Resource Center drop-in at 326 Lincoln St. The Youth Center has moved twice since its days at 404 Chestnut St., but kids still refer to it as “the 404.” Anyone who’s searched unsuccessfully for an internet address is familiar with the number 404; it’s the universal code for “not found.” As a sanctuary for homeless teens, the most invisible homeless population, the Youth Center couldn’t have a more appropriate nickname.

Walking into the drop-in is like walking into the headquarters for an after-school club. Kids are laughing, eating food and drawing pictures. Out back, two kids are grilling hamburgers while, in the café, a group of teens debate whether or not burgundy is a popular shade of red this year.

Hartke explains that the little café in the central room is stocked with coffee and snacks. One teen walks by with a huge plate of meat while Hartke is talking and yells, “They don’t feed us nothin’!” Hartke, who laughs with her whole body, says, “For an old bird, I do all right with these kids.”

Talking to the staff at CFS, one similarity immediately stands out: Although the youth who seek help at the resource center are known officially as clients, everyone at the shelter also refers to them as “our kids.” Most of the kids who go to the drop-in don’t have parental figures that they can turn to for support or advice, and sometimes that void is filled by staff at CFS. 

“We are very fortunate and very lucky to be able to build the relationships that we build with these kids, and help them to know that there are adults out there that don’t want to hurt them, don’t want anything from them, that will show up and do what we say,” explains Hartke. “For some of these kids, that may be the first time that an adult person has done that for them.”

Daniel and Tom both suffer from medical conditions that exacerbate their housing issues.

But, to be reliable, staff also have to set and maintain boundaries. Every evening and weekend, the youth center closes. Connors says that this is one of the hardest parts of her job: “Knowing that your client doesn’t have someplace to stay, but you walk out the door, get in your car and drive home.” On cold nights, the hearts and mind of CFS staff are still at the office.

The services that the youth center offers include showers, bathrooms, laundry, clothing and a food pantry supplied by the New Hampshire Food Bank. There is a row of computers in the middle of the room and free WiFi, and the staff work with kids on interview prep and resume help. This past October, the center listened to a request from one of their clients and installed a new addition in the bathroom: a changing table.

Seventeen-year-old Emily has a cold; she is coughing deeply while she bounces a smiling baby on her lap. Emily has been intermittently homeless since she was 15.  During last winter and spring, at the age of 16, she carried her daughter Norah to term while living on the streets. “It was scary, it was cold … I had to walk around everywhere. I had a big old belly. It was hard, and I definitely feared for my child a lot.” Every day, Emily worries that she will get a call from DCYF. With help from her daughter’s father, Matt, social services in Manchester and her own paychecks, she is able to keep her daughter indoors at night, but Emily is still afraid that Norah will be taken away. 

“I’m not a bad mom … I might not be perfect and I might not have everything, but I’m doing the very best that I can.” Emily works one full-time job to support Norah and is applying to a second one. While she is at work, she’s able to leave Norah with friends and Matt, but it’s not an easy balancing act. 

With the addition of this second job, Emily’s goal is to get an apartment, keep her daughter safe and even start a college fund for her. And when Norah is old enough, Emily hopes to go to college herself for criminal justice. She wants to become a juvenile probation officer and help homeless and at-risk youth to rebuild their lives. “My community is the homeless community.  And they are some of the nicest, sweetest, kind-hearted genuine people you will ever meet in your entire life. They are giving because they’ve been where there is nothing.”

Sleeping in fast-food restaurants and friends’ houses, Emily and Matt also struggle to maintain their relationship with each other. Since most shelters separate men’s and women’s quarters, couples are split up when they go to them. So, for many people, sleeping inside costs them the support and protection of their significant other. “I’ve heard before that a couple would rather sleep outside than stay at a shelter,” says Harris. A new family shelter on Lake Avenue now offers 11 spaces for homeless families, but the waitlist is long.

Fortunately, friendship between homeless teens is a lot easier to navigate. The homeless teen population tends to stick together. Daniel and his friend Tom, for instance, have much in common. They’ve been friends since high school, and they’re both charismatic, outgoing and full of passion for the world they live in. 

They also both suffer from lifelong chronic diseases. Daniel has multiple coronary problems as well as Crohn’s, a chronic inflammatory bowel disease that is exacerbated by stress. When Tom was 14 years old, his right lung collapsed from arteriovenous malformations (AVMs), which is a genetic problem where veins and arteries do not connect to each other correctly and as a result can become weakened and burst. With a naturally gaunt frame and a prescribed course of blood thinners, sleeping outside in the cold is one of the worst things Tom can do for his body.

Long-term health problems don’t go well with physical labor. “I try not to make any excuses, but that led to me not being physically able to work,” explains Tom. “Now, trying to come out of that situation is really the struggle.”

There are transitional living programs in the state for homeless people that allow them to pay 30 percent of the rent on an apartment while they work up to a point where they can financially support themselves.

James is one of those success stories. He has been homeless for five years and has been living with a host of mental disorders since childhood. He was 17 when his mother, who struggled with substance abuse, kicked him out. Remarkably, he still finished high school with extra credits.

Growing up dispossessed, homeless and surrounded by hostility leaves a mark on teenagers in the spring of their lifetime.  There are hundreds of children in this situation right now in Manchester, being shaped into adults. Some of them made mistakes, while others inherited the mistakes of their parents. Regardless, these are young, pliable people who haven’t fallen into old habits yet; a year of rent, right now, could make the difference of a lifetime for a homeless teenager.

With his new apartment, James is sleeping better, showering regularly and able to figure out the next step. “Sometimes it’s like a dream, sometimes it feels like it’s not real,” he says at the Youth Center. He no longer needs to go there to meet his basic needs, but he still comes by to see friends and work with his case manager. The difference is that now he goes home, for the first time in his life, to a safe space that he can call his own.

CFS is more than an organization, and its employees are more than social workers. For hundreds of kids who don’t have the support, love or attention of parents, CFS is like a family. They help kids to get the equipment and uniforms they need to play high school sports, go with young women and young men to find prom dresses and rent tuxes, even take clients on college tours. Sometimes kids bring in their report cards to show the staff. Most homeless centers are focused on providing clients with basic needs, but CFS hopes to give their clients a chance to be real teenagers. 

As the holidays fade and the snow begins to take over, staff at CFS are handing out space blankets, food and warm layers that have been donated in anticipation of the coming storms.  It’s a hard thing for staff to do following the holidays, where they watch so many of “their kids” let their guard down, even if only for a few hours.

In October, Kelly walked into an unusual scene: dozens of her clients painting and carving pumpkins. “They were laughing and giggling and eating candy and just being kids, because that’s what they need is a safe place where they can breathe for a minute … and just be a kid.”

2016 was the first year that the drop-in stayed open on Thanksgiving Day. When Seth heard about it, he started crying. “It’s my first Thanksgiving not being with my family,” he says. 

Snacks and business cards left by Child and Family Services' street outreach team at a local tent city

There are times, like this, when it’s hard to tell whether these teens are more like adults or children. Like any teenager, they vacillate between the two, trying to find a concrete future and a sense of self while holding onto their dreams. They are at once tough and vulnerable, naïve and jaded. 

Some of them are being forced to be adults before their time, like Emily who worries that her daughter will “struggle before she even realizes she’s struggling,” the way that she herself did. But the magic of teenagers is still present.  Teens have a foot in both worlds, and the knowledge that things can change so quickly makes them more optimistic than at any other age. Even the darkest times can’t seem to blot out their dreams. 

Watching Matt hold Norah, Emily looks and sounds like an adult when she says, “We’ve gotten through. We’ve survived. And that’s what we are; we’re fighters and survivors.” Matt is looking down at his daughter as he adds, “And she won’t have to be.” He looks up. “That’s the goal.”

Categories: Features