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Number of homeless youth continues to rise as thousands of San Diego teens have no place to call home

The number of homeless young people in San Diego, ages 18 to 25, is on the rise.

SAN DIEGO — For San Diegan Dominique Whatley, the streets of San Diego are often the only place she has to call home.

"I just learned to accept it," she told News 8, as she stood outside a youth emergency shelter set up last Tuesday at a North Park church. 

"I just sleep on the streets. It's scary," she said. 

Dominique, who is from southeast San Diego and is now 21-years-old, has been homeless off-and-on since she was 17. This time around, she said she has been living on the streets for the past three weeks. 

Returning home, she added, can be too painful.

"Going back to that house, it reminds me of when I was molested. A lot of things happened," she said.

On this particular night, though, Dominique does have a safe place to stay, thanks to a local non-profit called Urban Street Angels

"We offer that unconditional love that they might not have ever experienced before," said Jerry Troyer, a minister and Director of Shelter Operations for the group. 

Urban Street Angels' volunteers provide direct outreach to homeless young people by picking them up in a shuttle van to drive them directly to the North Park overnight shelter. Once there, dozens of teens and early 20-somethings are provided a hot meal, a cot to crash on, shower facilities, and a breakfast in the morning. On top of that, they are also offered a range of resources, from medical to legal to social services, as well as supportive housing services. 

Troyer said that the number of homeless young people in San Diego, ages 18 to 25, is on the rise. 

"There are six, 7,000 homeless young people of this age group in San Diego. So this is absolutely the tip of the iceberg," Troyer told News 8.

Sadly, the number of homeless teens who are under 18 is also on the rise. 

Teri Burg, executive director of Stand Up For Kids here in San Diego, knows this all too well. She has dedicated her life to helping homeless youth for nearly three decades now. Several times a week, she hits the streets of East Village with other volunteers, providing direct outreach to teens who have no roof over their heads. Along with the food, drinks and hygiene products they delivers, they are also providing a sense of hope.

"They're escaping all kinds of abuse - physical, mental, psychological. Their numbers are increasing, and one of the sad things I've noticed is: they're younger," Burg said.      

"You see everything imaginable that you probably don't want to face in this life: the good, the bad, the ugly," she added.

Stand Up For Kids is also volunteer-based and funded strictly through donations. Their drop-in center in East Village provides everything from food and clothes to showers and housing support, dealing primarily with kids who are anywhere from 14 to 24 years old. 

In some cases, they are even younger. Burg remembered the extraordinary case of a pair of brothers who were only 10 and 12 years old, forced to fend for themselves, that came to Stand Up For Kids for assistance.

"They went to school that morning and they came home and their parents had moved," Burg said. 

"These kids will tell you: I am safer on the streets than in the home I came from," she added. 

Stephanie Wilson has also volunteered for Stand Up For Kids for years. 

"A lot of these kids have no other family and we are it. We are it for them. It's pretty sad when they are runaways and their parents aren't looking for them. That happens a lot," she said. 

LGBTQ teens are disproportionately represented among homeless youth both nationwide and locally, according to experts, making up an estimated 40% of the population.

"Their parents don't want them: that couldn't be my son, that couldn't be my daughter," Burg said. "It breaks my heart."

"So many people, especially from the Midwest or the South, come out to family and were rejected, so they had to leave and wind up in San Diego, and they wind up on the streets," said Troyer. 

Regardless of their sexuality, many of these teens have to do whatever it takes to make it. 

"Prostitution, panhandling, and any way they can to survive," Burg said. 

Dominique said that she has had to resort to both panhandling and prostitution at times.

"I'd be on the streets with nothing, starving and with no clothes," she said. 

She also has dreams of turning her life around, with ambitions of becoming a singer, and a goal of one day finding a home to call her own.

"I mean, you got to make a change somehow," Dominique said. 

And those dedicated to helping these young people make that change are not giving up.

"I wouldn't trade it for anything," Troyer said, quickly adding, "until the day we don't have to do it anymore."

More information about Youth Homelessness by San Diego Youth Services can be San Diego Youth Services

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