In an upstairs room on 18th Street at the Oceanfront, a place of refuge exists: The Crow’s Nest, an escape for homeless and at-risk youth.
A cross wrapped in fairy lights sits on a table against the wall, a testament to the involvement of the nearby Virginia Beach United Methodist Church. Basic rules are bullet-pointed by stars on a whiteboard: Be respectful. No cursing. No knives. No guns.
On a recent night, six boys in their late teens relaxed in folding chairs. A TV hummed with the opening theme song of a game show. One or two teens were on their phones. A volunteer said that one had his first encounter with homelessness when he was 15. This might be their temporary haven, but the teens don’t want others to know they are in crisis.
There were more than 40,000 unaccompanied homeless youth under the age 25 last year, according to the 2017 Homelessness Assessment Report to Congress. Of those, about 4,800 were younger than 18. About 54 percent of the 18- to 24-year-olds, however, are not housed in shelters. For unaccompanied teens younger than under 18, the number of unsheltered is more than half.
According to a 2016 report by the National Conference of State Legislatures, teens who become homeless often are escaping traumatic family lives, such as neglect, physical and sexual abuse or the addictions or mental health issues of a family member. They might also be transitioning from foster care homes and have nowhere to go.
“Most of the youth that are homeless blend in to not look like it, so you wouldn’t even know,” says Sharena Handy, a counselor at Seton Youth Shelters. “They’re blending in very well with society. With adults, you see them right away.”
Teens, however, work to look like the thousands who walk about the Oceanfront every day.
“They don’t want to be stigmatized,” Handy said. “They don’t want people to know.”
The Crow’s Nest started in 1999 as a collaboration between Seton Youth Shelters, Virginia Beach United Methodist and Stand Up for Kids, a nonprofit that works with homeless and at-risk youth. It meets every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday night and assists people up to age 21. Trained volunteers and professionals provide entertainment, food and drink, crisis counseling, clothing and hygiene items.
Out on the streets, teens face high risks. A 2018 study shows that 47 percent of homeless youth have been physically harmed by others, and that number jumps to 62 percent for homeless LGBTQ youth.
“I tell my volunteers: ‘No one can complain about being hungry. No one can complain about being cold,’ ” said Mark Stevens, the executive director of the Hampton Roads chapter of Stand Up for Kids.
“Nobody wants to be homeless. That's a big thing you hear all the time. Nobody chooses to be homeless. There’s a reason why they’re homeless.”