The stereotypes of homelessness can make it easy for those who are young, homeless and truly struggling to fly under the radar.
"People think because you're not on drugs or not pushing a cart around, you’re not homeless," explained Cynthia Lira-Martinez, a peer support specialist at Kern County Network for Children's Dream Center. "A lot of homeless youth try to look OK, because they’re embarrassed."
This month the Youth Action Board for the Bakersfield-Kern Regional Homeless Collaborative is trying to call attention to the very specific ways that homelessness looks different in young people. The group, which includes both current and former homeless youths, released an informational sheet on how to identify and also engage those who might be homeless.
Officially, there are 175 homeless youths between ages 18 and 25, and that includes 55 who were former foster youths, according to the Bakersfield-Kern Regional Homeless Collaborative's August count.
But this is really only the tip of the iceberg, said Lira-Martinez, who is also on the Youth Action Board. In order for these homeless youths to get help, they need to be identified.
"It is happening right in front of us," Lira-Martinez said.
Young people who are homeless tend to fit a different profile than more visible older homeless people, according to Gennessa Fisher, chair of the Youth Action Board.
They won't sleep out in the open during the day. They might not have great hygiene, but they tend to be cleaner than someone who has been on the streets for a long time. To an untrained eye, it might not be obvious that someone is homeless.
Fisher said that when she was going to college, only one of her professors knew that she was homeless. That professor offered Fisher grace on her assignments and brought her food. The others discovered her situation only when she dropped out.
"I understand that teachers have so much to focus on, but kids don’t just drop out," she said. "They have been slipping through the cracks."
The education community is a big target of the Youth Action Board's awareness campaign, since they're the ones who see young people regularly.
Some signs of a homelessness are sleepiness or hunger. Young homeless people might carry a backpack. They may linger. Or they may avoid social environments, seclude themselves and avoid eye contact. They may have addiction issues.
Their performance or attendance in school might not be great. It's hard to focus on algebra when you're sleeping on a park bench, Fisher said.
"When you are homeless, you are in survival mode," she said.
Lira-Martinez experienced homelessness for the first time in high school, and she would sometimes fall asleep during class. Teachers couldn't see she was going through a hard time; they told her she wasn't going to amount to anything.
Lira-Martinez hopes that teachers can learn the signs of homelessness and try to help their students, instead of putting them down.
More than 4,700 students in Kern County's K-12 public schools have been identified as living in unstable housing situations, according to Kern County Superintendent of Schools spokesman Robert Meszaros.
Most young people find themselves on the street when something has gone seriously awry in their families. Fisher said she fled violence and had nowhere else to turn.
Lira-Martinez spent her youth in foster care. When she turned 18, she found herself without a home or a support system. At the Dream Center, she now helps current and former foster youths like herself.
The Youth Action Board suggests a gentle approach. Threatening to call Child Protective Services isn't helpful. The word "homeless" still has a stigma. They recommend asking if a young person has plans or needs help or resources. Building a relationship, and following up, is key.
"The biggest thing is having someone who cares," Fisher said.
Lira-Martinez said that Kern County still has a lot to do when it comes to supporting homeless youths.
Once they've stepped through the door of the Dream Center, she and others can help put them on track with whatever they need, whether it's emotional support, a hot shower, a meal or putting together a resume.
Finding and identifying current and former foster youths who qualify for their services isn't easy. Fisher said she needed a therapist to walk her through the doors for the first time.
And there are limits to what the Dream Center can offer, Lira-Martinez said. It doesn't support other young people who didn't go through the foster care system. It closes in the afternoon. It's not a place to sleep.
Many shelters prioritize the elderly or families. Young people are left to fend for themselves, which is dangerous. They're subject to theft, violence and trafficking.
The county needs a shelter dedicated to homeless youths and their unique needs, she said. It is crucial to attack the problem at a young age, Lira-Martinez said.
"It will help them in the future," she said.