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Policy makers, advocates look for ways to serve growing population of homeless youth

Cera Dunlap, 25, has spent much of her life caught in the throes of uncertainty, as a homeless youth and living without a guardian in Baltimore City.

"At 11, the state placed me in foster care, and I ran away at 12," said Dunlap, who spent six years after that without a fixed residence.

"Being homeless [as a young person] is extremely hard," she said. "At that age people don't take you seriously."

Dunlap now resides at Restoration Gardens, apartments for homeless youth located in Park Heights. She works as a peer case manager at the Youth Empowered Society (YES) Drop-in Center on Charles Street in Baltimore, where she counsels unaccompanied homeless youth between the ages of 14 and 25.

As a peer counselor, she spoke on a recent Tuesday to Desmond Sims, 21. Sims is homeless and living on the streets of Baltimore.

"It's hard — some days it's cold, you're on the streets, you're thinking about what you're going to eat, where you're going to sleep and sometimes you've got to stay up all night, and your mind is racing about when you're going to find a job. But if you find a job, it's hard for you to maintain that job," Sims said.

Sims is part of a growing population of what is known as homeless unaccompanied youth — young people between the ages of 14 and 25 not in the physical custody of a parent or guardian who are struggling to fight their way out of poverty into a permanent living situation.

"It is absolutely a statewide issue or challenge," said Del. Mary Washington, who represents Baltimore City. She became aware of the issue when she was approached by homeless youth at the Youth Empowered Society Drop-In Center in 2012.

The YES Drop-In Center, founded in 2012 by former homeless youth, is the city's only drop-in day center for homeless youth, offering resources to meet basic needs, said Lara Law, program director at the center.

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