You'd never know Kay was homeless by looking at him. The trim 17-year old makes a black t-shirt and pants look fashionable, and he sports the kind of thick, black-rimmed glasses you'd see on a young intellectual at a college campus coffee house.
But Kay lost his home last April after a fight with his mom turned violent. It was during this fight that he came out to his mother.
"I'd rather be homeless than the risk of going blind because your mother sprays oven cleaner in your eyes because she's mad. That's not safe for me," he says.
Kay, who's requested MPR withhold his full name over fear of reprisal for talking about his personal situation, describes himself as a Somali kid from the suburbs. He now lives in what's called transitional housing. But when he hit the streets, he didn't feel safe going to an adult shelter.
"It's very easy for people like to actually take advantage of you as like a 17-year old youth that looks very innocent, it's scary."
Katie Ann Kennedy also knows what it's like to fear for her safety in a shelter for adults.
"I was scared out of my mind the first time I went to an adult shelter and I cried the entire night," she says
Kennedy works part-time at Safe Zone, a resource center for homeless youth, and she stops in a coffee shop after her shift. She's now 19 and she also lives in transitional housing. But she became homeless five years ago when her mom moved to another state and left her behind.
I was scared out of my mind the first time I went to an adult shelter and I cried the entire nightKatie Ann Kennedy
"If you're young, it can just be really scary when one day you go over to your friend's house and you can't stay there that night and you go over to your other friend's house and they're not there and here it's like 9:00 at night and there's nowhere for you to go. You're sitting in a McDonald's with 27 cents in your pocket not even enough to get on a bus and go somewhere. It's probably the scariest, most lonely, empty feeling in the whole world."
On any given night in Minnesota, according to the the Wilder study, nearly 650 kids under 18 have nowhere to go for the night. There are under 100 emergency beds for them in the metro area. With these odds, Katie wound up in an adult shelter. There, she met a man who attacked her when she rejected his sexual advances.
"He grabbed me by my hair and slammed my head against the wall because I didn't like him like that," she says.
Her experience in the adult shelter is exactly what youth shelters want to help young people avoid. An adult shelter means a mat on the floor with hundreds of older strangers in the same space. But at a youth shelter, young people are separated by gender, and they may even get their own room.
Monica Nilsson, a homelessness worker formerly with The Bridge for Youth, one of only six youth shelters in the metro area, opens the door to one of the shelter's rooms.
"Well, (it's) like any other teenager's bedroom," she says.
The floor is carpeted with clothes and magazines.
"Some girls will be with us for one night and we'll never see them again. And some will be with us, unfortunately, for...many weeks to a few months," she says of her clients.
Nilsson says that for every kid that gets a bed here for the night, five are turned away. And, even with all these kids out on the streets, she says the public just doesn't see the problem. These kids are invisible.
"If you're driving down the street, it's pretty easy to point to somebody pushing a shopping cart and think that you recognize homeless people. But, are you ever going to point to someone who's marching behind the school patrols? Never. Are you ever going to point to someone who's handing you your change at the checkout counter? No. But we have youth working at the Bridge, are working at FedEx, are working at Holiday, are working at Kowalski's, and you would never suspect that they're homeless."
So what happens to young people who don't get a shelter bed?
Katie Ann Kennedy has the answer. She says that for homeless teens, finding a place to stay sometimes comes at a cost.
"Maybe they just do some drugs to fit in with some people who have an apartment or maybe they have sex with someone who has an apartment so they can live there and it's just...There's nowhere for them to go so they have to compromise," she says.
But shelter is just a start. Young people like Katie and Kay need more than a bed for the night. Kay puts it like this.
"Like I have friends of mine that they're like 17 just like me, but I'm still in some ways a kid and like sometimes we want someone to take care of us," he says.
Outreach workers and advocates are hoping the proposed Runaway and Homeless Youth Act will pass this session, which would put money towards more emergency beds and other resources for homeless youth.