Digging Deeper: Inside the unseen issue of teen homelessness - WKOW 27: Madison, WI Breaking News, Weather and Sports

Digging Deeper: Inside the unseen issue of teen homelessness

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MADISON (WKOW)-- Walking through downtown Madison, the homeless issue is right in front of you. You can see it outside the City-County Building where local leaders have enacted a loitering ban that will take effect October 1st to keep the homeless away.

Walk a few blocks further and you can see the remnants of another popular hang out spot for the homeless, the Philosopher's Grove Stones. Madison city officials say this popular sculpture on State Street had been a hot bed for criminal activity.

With two of their most popular hang out spots now closed for good, outreach workers say there's only one place left to go, the neighborhoods and business districts spread out across Madison.

"In recent weeks it has been really tough for us to work with these people, because they have a lot of trust issues after what has happened," Briarpatch Youth Services Street Outreach Coordinator Tyler Schueffner says.

Not only will spreading out the homeless population make things difficult for outreach workers, but Schueffner and others say it could lead to more conflicts with others in the community, especially the unseen population of homeless teens hiding among us in order to stay safe.

"If the number of kids who are actually homeless were on the streets, the community wouldn't tolerate it, if they actually saw it with their own eyes," Schueffner says.

While the issue of adult homelessness is easy to see, the issue of teen homelessness is much more subtle. Briarpatch says they work with local school districts to help them identify and support hundreds of homeless teens, but they admit there could be hundreds more who are still unidentified. Most of them live in hiding so they can escape drug dealers, sexual predators and those who are involved in human trafficking.

"The vulnerability of this population is insane. It's absolutely incredible how many predators are out there trying to take advantage of this population of people," Schueffner says.

The reason these teens go unseen is because many are living with friends and obscure family members and often go from couch to couch, sleeping where they can. Others are forced to sleep in cars and tents spread out across the city.

Some teens have literally no other option but to sleep in the woods. Workers say to escape the dangers of sleeping in the shelters some teens decide to build encampments in the woods where they can sleep in tents and on tarps.

"I was homeless living in the woods. It's just definitely a frightening experience," one teen says of her experience being homeless for nearly two years.

One teen agreed to share her experience with 27 News after we agreed to keep her identity a secret. She left her family when she was a teenager and started couch hopping, but eventually she was forced to sleep in a wooded area just a few hundreds away from a popular walking trail on Madison's far east side.

"My tent was over here under this tree," she says while visiting her old encampment. "There were two other tents over there. We would often make fires, but you have to be careful, because someone might see it and that's not good."

Living in the woods took its toll on her. She says there were several dark moments of severe depression that led her to contemplate and event attempt suicide. Somehow she was able to keep a full-time job at a local fast food restaurant and eventually saved up enough money to find an apartment of her own.

"It's definitely a bold experience to just see how this is where you were once and you've come so far now," she says.

She has since moved into an even better apartment near downtown and recently started a job at a local retailer. At Briarpatch Youth Services they couldn't be more proud of her accomplishments after all the support they've given, but workers say sadly, most stories don't turn out so well.

"I wish that was the narrative, but it's not. We've lost clients to suicide. We've lost people to incarceration," Schrieffer says. "Percentage wise I would say it hovers around 10% to 15% that we are aware of that make that transition into what we would quantify as a really successful transition."

Often times the resilience and courage of these teens overwhelms even the most tenured outreach workers like Schrieffer, but despite their efforts, most teens never escape the downward spiral of homelessness.

Outreach workers say the only thing they can do is try to reach them and give them the support they need in hopes of preventing them from becoming one of the chronically homeless individuals you often see in downtown Madison.

"When we think about homelessness it's important to try and encapsulate the entire population of people if affects," Schrieffer says. "It affects families, it affects small children and teens."

"I think we're doing them and the community a disservice because there are some incredible people that given the right opportunities can thrive, but we tend to want to marginalize and kind of exploit them."

On October 1st, Briarpatch will open the first ever teen homeless shelter in Dane County. The facility will house runaway teens between the ages of 13 and 17. Each room features at least one bed and a computer so they can do their homework, build their resumes and find employment and stable housing.

To learn more about Briarpatch Youth Services visit http://www.youthsos.org/

For more on homeless youth, click here.

Additional Resources:

National Alliance to End Homelessness--  http://www.endhomelessness.org/pages/youth

Youth Homeless Statistics--  http://www.safehorizon.org/page/homeless-youth-statistics--facts-69.html

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