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In the heart of the summer, the Mississippi Valley Fairgrounds is a bustling place, a crowded midway filled with sights and sounds, smells and people.

It is a playground for teens.

But in the heart of a not-so-long-ago night, the west Davenport fairgrounds was eerily silent, covered with cold and darkness, cloaked in loneliness and menace.

It was an uncertain sanctuary for Audrey, just 15 - "maybe 14," she corrected - and freshly ordered from her home by an angry, abusive father.

"The first time it happened, it was like 2:30, 3 o'clock in the morning," the now-18-year-old veteran of life without a home remembered. "I walked all night, calling people and trying to find somewhere to go. I knocked on some doors of a couple of people I knew and, of course, it was late and they weren't up.

"Eventually, I figured the best place to go would be the fairgrounds. There's not a whole lot of people who go through there at night. I just found a place behind a little shed to sleep. Yeah. That's where I slept."

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Numbers that define the growing problem of teen homelessness in the U.S. typically are dated and unreliable, elusive as a runaway teen living his or her life on the margins.

Quad-City numbers are guesswork, too.

"I would estimate on any given night in the Quad-Cities, there are probably 30 to 50 kids in the Quad-Cities that truly do not have a place to go," said Ellen Reilly, who fills the federally mandated role of homeless liaison for Davenport schools. "A lot of kids couch-surf. They stay with friends. They find a place to stay."

Or they don't.

Reilly tells the story of one homeless Davenport student who built an igloo in LeClaire Park just a few years ago. The boy spent his winter nights there before riding a bus up the hill to start his school days at Central High.

Last school year, nearly 400 Davenport schoolchildren fit the definition of homeless - lacking a fixed night-time residence - as outlined by the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987.

Of that number, 55 percent were teens.

Adela Martinez, director of the year-old Theplace2B youth drop-in center in Rock Island, cited one estimate of 200 homeless teens in the Quad-Cities area.

But Matt Mendenhall, a former associate of the now-defunct John Lewis Community Services and current vice president of regional programs for the Community Foundation of the Great River Bend, said he has heard estimates that tag the number of "displaced kids" in the Quad-Cities in the low thousands.

In reality, no one within the large contingent of agencies, outreach groups and volunteers who comprise this area's safety net for the homeless can cite a number with a strong degree of certainty.

The number of kids sleeping on the streets is an even tougher target.

Rusty Boruff is an Aledo, Ill., native who was a homeless teen himself and now conducts homeless outreach under the umbrella of the Calvary Church of the Quad-Cities in Moline. He said he believes a significant number, perhaps double Reilly's estimated 30 to 50 teens, are on the streets, some sleeping in abandoned buildings, others in stairwells or behind Dumpsters.

Pennie Kellenberger is a veteran social worker and director of The Center in Davenport. Like Theplace2B, Kellenberger's church-funded operation supplies a daytime safe haven for homeless teens and kids at risk. But it is not a night-time shelter.

Since shortly before the John Lewis operation went bankrupt in 2008, no night-time shelter for teens has existed in the Quad-Cities.

So where do homeless teens go? Some, 18 and up, find refuge in adult shelters.

A few, again typically older, use transitional housing options provided by multiple agencies throughout the region.

Most find temporary shelter with friends, family, acquaintances and, perhaps too often, strangers.

Out of The Center, Kellenberger leads an outreach team that meets the homeless where they are.

"You don't see kids sleeping behind Dumpsters," she said "They are more resourceful than that. But out of five students I spoke with last week, three of them, I would rather have them sleeping on the streets than living where they were living."

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At 14, Monica was like Audrey. She slept where she lay during the first few days of her initial homeless experience.

"Slept in a garage," she said. "Slept in a park in a tunnel."

It wasn't long before both girls found a way indoors.

"I had to go back there a second night," Audrey said of the fairgrounds. "After that, I went and stayed with a friend of mine for two weeks."

Months of couch-surfing followed, then a return home, more turmoil and then more couch-surfing.

Monica's options were riskier.

"I was bouncing from house to house to house, selling things from other people for money to get places to stay or get gas to go someplace," she said. "I would steal things and sell them. Or sell drugs. Pretty much anything I could do to get money."

And she truly means anything.

"Back in the day, I used to be very vulnerable to do that," the now-18-year-old Davenport girl said of prostituting herself or using sex to find a bed. "But growing up, I came to realize there was many other things to do to get what I wanted."

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Bad choices sometimes put teens on the street.

Addictions. Criminal behavior. Refusal to accept parental authority or to remain in the foster care system.

"It's the nature of being a teenager," The Center's Kellenberger said. "If they would stop doing drugs, then maybe ... Or stop doing this or that, then maybe."

But, national experts and Quad-Cities caretakers say, sometimes teens leave home because they have no choice.

Abuse, neglect and poverty all are factors.

Kellenberger said she knows of one Davenport teen whose mother moved into Section 8 subsidized housing where the landlord said, "You can only have this many people in your house."

The 16-year-old boy was the oldest teen. "And he's out," she said.

Audrey worked things out with her father well over a year ago. "But," she said, "he got locked up. And now his girlfriend is moving and when she is gone I've got to be gone."

Gone to where?

"I don't know," she said.

Too often, teens are homeless because that is the better, safer choice than remaining in a dangerous or abusive home.

A report recently submitted to Congress by the Family and Youth Services Bureau, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, declared a majority of an estimated 1.6 million to 2.8 million homeless teens cited family conflict as their reason for leaving home.

A 2002 Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquincy Prevention report said

21 percent of what it termed "runaway/throwaway kids" had experienced physical or sexual abuse and feared more of the same if they returned home.

Ellen Bassuk, president of The National Center on Family Homelessness, said the age of available homeless statistics likely means the number of homeless families and teens has only grown as the national economy plummeted over the past half-decade.

Using McKinney-Vento data gathered in 2005-2006, Bassuk's organization determined 1 of every 50 children in America has experienced homelessness. Now, she said, "we're sure that number is bigger." And, she said, "A lot of them are escaping difficult family situations."

Finally, Bassuk said, a significant percentage of teens are homeless because their families view sexuality as a choice.

"Nationally, 20 to 40 percent of these kids are LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) kids," she said. "They have been kicked out of families because they have come out."

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Paul was 18 and working toward his high school degree in Davenport last spring while spending his nights in the Humility of Mary Adult Men's Shelter not far from school.

He escaped one large at-risk teen homelessness subgroup - children who age out of foster care without having been adopted - only to land in another.

Adopted in his mid-teens by a deeply religious foster family in Morrison, Ill., he found himself dropped off in front of a Clinton, Iowa, homeless shelter after telling his adoptive parents he was gay three summers ago.

He said his sexuality has been a danger in adult shelter settings.

"I have actually been beaten up a couple of times, but it doesn't really bother me because I was abused as a kid," said the young man who relocated to Chicago in May before obtaining his degree. "So, I get hit, I just walk away. Just keep walking."

And, hopefully, he said, moving forward.

"I've got a lot of things on my plate," he said then. "I've got schoolwork. I've got the issue of trying to find a job. My mind is constantly going with something. And someone running up behind me and punching me in the head doesn't seem to stop me."

Paul said he wanted a college degree and career in theater and dance.

"Hopefully, I can get on ‘So You Think You Can Dance' and become the next Brad Pitt," he said.

That's the dream. When he dreams. But Paul said he doesn't dream often.

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To a homeless teen, the future is a concept more elusive than the statistics that fail to define their ranks.

"I think about it from time to time," Audrey said. "But mostly it's just like ‘What am I going to do tomorrow? What am I going to do today? I'm trying to find a job.' Basically, yeah, just trying to find a stable place to stay."

Joblessness and homelessness often go hand in hand, but a job isn't necessarily going to get a teen off the streets.

"A lot of homeless kids have a job," Davenport school liaison Reilly said. "But they don't make enough to afford an apartment."

Education and a hand up are essential to lifting teens out of homelessness, and bringing kids home isn't just a selfless act, noted the Community Foundation's Mendenhall. It makes sound economic sense.

He cited an Achieve Quad-Cities Initiative study that pegged the taxpayer cost for supporting a high school dropout over his or her lifetime at $500,000.

Deborah Shore, vice chair of the National Network for Youth, said studies have shown that half of the country's chronically homeless adults also were homeless as teens.

"It's a pretty significant predictor," she said.

So to ask a homeless teen their thoughts about the future is an exercise in futility.

"I don't know what tomorrow is going to bring," Paul said. "So I don't really worry about the future."

 

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