Alison Ritter, left, and Alyssa Clement of Child and Family Services of New Hampshire, search known tenting areas for homeless teens so they can bring them information, food, toiletries and support. The organization serves ages 12-22 in the Seacoast from Seabrook to Rochester. Deb Cram/ and Seacoastonline

Part three

Youth problem hidden

Traumatic events seen with many kids

By Kyle Stucker

Invisibility is one of the best survival tools for people living on the Seacoast’s streets, but for the youngest sub-population of the homeless community, it may also prevent more aid from going where experts say it’s sorely needed.

Cathy Kuhn, executive director of the New Hampshire Coalition to End Homelessness, said youth homelessness is one of the most misunderstood and least discussed epidemics in New Hampshire and other parts of the country. That's because most homeless youth spend a significant amount of their energy avoiding detection.

Kuhn said that limits comprehension of the extent of the issue, particularly in governmental channels that control funding for social service agencies and assistance programs. That, she says, may also be one of the reasons why the Granite State doesn’t have an overnight emergency shelter specifically for homeless teens, emancipated or otherwise.

“That is a major gap in services that, for at least a lot of the youth, can lead to dangerous situations,” said Kuhn, who also called for a more robust statewide system of assistance to help children who aren’t eligible for help through the state’s various family programs and shelters.

Most homeless youth don’t come forward or seek help because they fear it would put them back into the traumatic environments that directly contributed to their homelessness, according to Alyssa Clement and Alison Ritter, members of Child and Family Services’ street outreach team. CFS, whose Seacoast office is in Dover and serves teens and young adults from Seabrook to Rochester, is a private nonprofit that provides case management, prevention services, crisis intervention, mental health counseling and more to about 15,000 at-risk youth, homeless youth and families across the state each year.

Child and Family Services of New Hampshire Outreach workers often leave toiletries, water, and contact information where they see possible activity in tent city areas in Portsmouth. They return the following week to see if the items are still there, gaining a sense of the activity in the area. The teen homeless population is very transient and moves quickly, they say. Deb Cram/ and Seacoastonline

Youth homelessness is the result of many factors and often takes many forms, from individuals sleeping in tents and cars to students who couch-surf with friends. While every story is different, Clement said homeless youth often come from unstable housing circumstances, homes and foster care situations in which they’ve suffered some sort of abuse, and increasingly due to New Hampshire’s opioid epidemic, teens who run away because they feel safer on the streets than being around parents who use drugs or allow drug activity in their homes.

Often, according to Clement, these people also blame themselves for their homelessness, regardless of how they found themselves in that situation.

“Something we talk about a lot as an organization is with trauma, a lot of people see PTSD as a diagnosis, but PTSD in the diagnostic manual is related to a singular traumatic event,” Ritter said while providing outreach in various wooded areas in Portsmouth on a rainy October day. “For a lot of our youth, their (entire) lives are traumatic. They don’t necessarily have one big thing they can attribute it to.”

Clement and others say it’s difficult to fully and accurately count homeless youth in any area beyond those who come forward and those who are referred in by other entities. That's due to limited resources and the fact few people think twice about a teenager walking down the street with a full backpack, working at a grocery store during after-school hours or spending time in public with a group of friends.

The New Hampshire Department of Education found, based on data gathered by local school districts, there were 3,350 homeless students in the state during the 2015-16 school year, which is a 2.4 percent increase over the previous year. Several counties’ data indicated a decrease over the previous year, including Rockingham (422 students, a 7.5 percent decrease) and Strafford (287 students, a 14.8 decrease), although Kuhn, local welfare officials and social workers all emphasized these figures shouldn’t be looked at in a vacuum and that they expect data for 2016-17 to show an increase.

One segment of the population that has seen an increase in recent years is related to youth who are homeless due to their gender and sexual identities, according to Nancy Phillips, an Exeter activist and co-creator of “404 Not Found,” a documentary about New Hampshire’s homeless youth.

Based on estimates and data collected by experts and organizations that work directly with homeless youth, she said she found anywhere between 10 and 40 percent of the local population is estimated to be members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning community who were either kicked out by their parents or left their homes because they didn’t feel welcome or safe due to their identities and preferences.

“Whatever percentage it is, it’s too high,” said Phillips, who said she began producing “404 Not Found” after she learned about the issue while taking an LGBTQ perspective and issues class at the University of New Hampshire. “To me, if it’s 5 percent it’s horrifying, but it is a strong factor in New Hampshire. We have a lot of conservative people, especially in outlying areas, who probably have less of a tolerance. There are so many aspects of that … and it’s not just low-income households.”

Alison Ritter of Child and Family Services of New Hampshire says many homeless teens show signs of post traumatic stress disorder from events in their lives. Deb Cram/ and Seacoastonline

School districts play a key role in prevention, assistance and reporting, and federal law mandates each must have a special liaison who works with students who are transient or at risk of homelessness. Seacoast Media Group reached out to every district in the Seacoast for insight into what they’re seeing in their schools. While only Dover, Somersworth and Hampton responded, the data they shared indicates there is a significant issue, even if the numbers don’t tell the full picture.

Dover reported 57 homeless students were referred to the district in October, which district Homeless Education Liaison Lucinda McKenney said is the highest total she has ever had in the month. She said there are seven students at Dover High School categorized as unaccompanied youth, each of whom have been referred to CFS to help them find “some sort of stability.”

Somersworth reported it was aware of 60 homeless students in its district so far this school year, which is up from the 47 identified in 2015-16 and 43 in 2016-17. There are another 14 students at risk of homelessness this school year, while two individuals refused assistance, according to district data.

Hampton’s SAU 90, which only includes preschool to eighth-grade students because Winnacunnet High School is a separate district, indicated it knew of 41 homeless students in its district so far this school year. That figure is consistent with the past two years; in the 2015-16 school year, staff identified 46 students, while in 2016-17 there were 37 known homeless students.

Quick searches through social media reveal parents and teachers from across the Seacoast and southern Maine are discussing potential solutions to the issue. Some of those individuals are calling for local towns and school districts to be more creative by opening up foster facilities of their own to give their students a safe place to go before and after school, similar to the model used by Missouri’s Jennings School District.

Former North Hampton Town Administrator Paul Apple expressed a similar sentiment during his interview in “404 Not Found,” stating communities have an "obligation" to assist children in need.

CFS Director of Communications Kat Strange agreed.

“What’s it going to take? Maybe a real community-wide promise that continues to do these kinds of programs until the problem has ended,” said Strange, alluding to the fact many assistance programs in the state end after their grant funding runs out. “You want to end it? You want to combat the problem? You want to end youth homelessness? You don’t want anyone at risk? They have dreams and their stories aren’t ending because they’re struggling here. … We’re not comfortable stopping until everyone has the opportunity to change the trajectory of their lives and achieve their full potential.”

Find information on the New Hampshire Child and Family Services outreach team here.

Read part four of Homeless on the Seacoast:
'Invisible' problem growing
Shelters see harsh reality that is out of public's view