Three years ago, Massachusetts resident John Sears climbed into his parents minivan for a ride. Inside were his father and stepmother as well as their two preschool children. It was in the summer, he remembers, close to his 18th birthday.
"They drove me here to Manchester, dropped me off in front of the (New Horizons) shelter and just left," said Sears, who turns 21 in August. Since then, he's only had minimal contact with them.
Sears is one of hundreds of Manchester youth — advocates define them as anyone under 23 years of age — who are deemed homeless.
In May, the Mayor's Youth Advisory Council reported 1,115 homeless youth as of June 2012, citing a count provided by Manchester schools. Most live with their families in transitional housing or doubled up with another family.
But others fit the more traditional definition of homeless. They sleep under bridges, in woods or parking garages. They will go to shelters in a pinch, although they are turned off by the curfews and tight sleeping quarters. If they're lucky, they talk a friend into sharing a couch.
"It builds a lot of personality, and once you get used to it you're as free as it gets," said Darrin Boulay, 19, a talkative young man whose T-shirt reads "All who wander are not lost."
But he added that when he doesn't know where he will sleep, his day is incredibly stressful.
Four street youth spoke freely this week about their lives. Their stories are of runaways — or in some cases throwaways — who slide into lives of misdirection or, even worse, no direction.
Of the four, two were couch-surfing, or staying at the homes of friends. One was 7-1/2 months pregnant and living with her boyfriend, but unsure how long that would last.
"I get these nights where I wake up in a cold sweat crying," said Ashleigh Morse, 21, reflecting on her time as a homeless 19-year-old in Concord.
Only one, Andrew Burgin, a 22-year-old who grew up in Manchester, is sleeping outside tonight. His sleeping bag always get stolen, so Burgin curls up with a blanket beneath the Queen City bridge. The area smells of human feces, and the bridge can't keep him dry in a soaking rain, he said.
"The worst part is not being able to sleep at night (because of cold or rain), and waking up with bugs," said Burgin, a handsome young man with blond locks and a full beard.
He ran away from an abusive home when he was 17. Although he hates it, Burgin makes money "spanging," or asking people for spare change. Alcohol, he said, keeps him homeless.
Boulay makes money "busking," slang for playing a guitar for donations. He practices speed rap, speaks in street slang and expounds his street philosophy as easily as a politician does talking points. ("Victory Park may be a public area, but to us it's our living room.")
Although he claims that street life forces one to mature, the opposite could be said. In fact, youth clings to this bunch like a teenager to a couch:
• None of the four holds a job: Burgin said he constantly loses his Social Security card; Boulay said McDonald's restaurants told him he is too strong willed; Sears is awaiting disability payments for a seizure disorder.
• Strict rules and a 6:30 p.m. curfew keep them away from the New Horizons shelter. They opt for the drop-in center run by Child and Family Services, where a food pantry, clothes closet, shower, computer, condoms and Internet hookup — but no beds — are available.
• They frequently use street drugs such as marijuana or Spice, a synthetic marijuana they can purchase legally in area stores.
• And their bonds are as tight as any high-school peer group. The No. 1 rule of the street is to help out those who help you out, they said.
The main organization that keeps tabs on homeless youth is Child and Family Services. It sees about 1,000 children a year, said program director Erin Kelly. The age of 22 for homeless youth is set by the federal government, which provides program funding for them, Kelly said.
"I will talk to people about what I do for living and they'll say, 'we don't have homeless youth in Manchester,'" she said.
Boulay and his friends said they have seen children as young as 12 on the streets.So what to do about homeless youth? The Mayor's Youth Council came up with 10 recommendations, the most far reaching being a shelter for homeless youth. Technically, New Horizons shelter won't admit anyone under 18, but no one checks IDs there.
Kelly said it would take at least $2 million to open and staff such a shelter. And Morse, who will be a mother in about a month, said some would welcome the help of a shelter. Others are wary.
"I'm not going to sit and live in a shelter run by authority figures," Boulay said. "I'll live in a youth shelter run by people like me."
Mark Hayward's City Matters runs Thursdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader and UnionLeader.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.