FAIRBANKS — Homelessness is a problem for which most people have a single reference point: the homeless adult. The concept of homelessness among young people is not something many can wrap their minds around, but homelessness is a problem faced by hundreds of youths across the Interior each year.

Their reasons for being on their own are as unique as they are, but the experience of youth homelessness is not. Each faces the challenges of finding a safe place to sleep, getting food and basic needs met and finding educational and job opportunities.

To better understand their struggles, I sat down with a handful of Interior youths and asked them about being homeless in Fairbanks. Below are some thoughts they shared:

Days start harshly

“Usually I wake up in a frozen car, and just try to warm up.” They run the car all night long for the heat, but frequently the gas runs out and they wake to the freezing cold. The car doesn’t run, and none of them have licenses, but “that doesn’t matter, it’s a place to sleep,” they say.

“I’d recently become the owner of a car,” another young man told me, “and it was missing windows and I had no insurance, but it was better than anything else. We’d throw blankets over the top of the car to keep in the heat. It was so cold, sleeping in the back of the car. We’d snuggle up for warmth. I’d wake up in the morning so cold I couldn’t move. The first thing you think about is how to get warm, how to stay warm all day.”

Days are long

Winter days are longer. “I’d walk around all day, every day. All day, every day. You’ve got to keep moving, you know, because when you stop moving, that’s when you get cold.” He tells me that having a good backpack is paramount — backpacks keep you warm, weight on your back keeps you warm. Heavier backpacks are better, because then you’re working harder to walk, which means you’re staying warmer.

Good sleep is rare

“Last night I slept on a friend’s couch. I didn’t get much sleep, because his roommate came home and found us on the floor and couch, and he hadn’t been told we were gonna be there. Middle of the night, and I heard him go off about us being there. I couldn’t sleep through that. They didn’t kick us out till morning, but I didn’t really sleep.”

“Yeah, I don’t get much sleep. There are six of us, in a one bedroom dry cabin. One in the bedroom — it’s her lease — two in the loft, and three in the living room. Someone is always in a fight with someone else. We don’t have a car, so we have to walk 45 minutes and carry as much water as we can. But I take showers at the university for free. We’re not on the bus line, so a lot of our money goes towards getting a cab from the bus stop to our house — $7 — when we have groceries or it’s too cold to walk.”

Shelter is scarce

“We’re trying to get an apartment.”

“Someplace warm, someplace dependable?” I ask.

“Warm. Having someplace warm to go — that’s what’s most important. I can live without dependable. I can make my own dependable. Warm is what matters.”

He’s 17. He can’t rent an apartment, and none of the youths he lives with are over 21 — he tells me they have trouble even getting a hotel room. When they can afford it.

Transiency is constant

Moving from place to place, never having a permanent place, is a theme.

“Before (I was living in the car) I was staying at one of my friend’s house. Before that another friend’s. This summer we were camping.”

“It’s temporary,” one young woman emphasizes, “that’s what people don’t understand. I’m living there, but my name isn’t on the lease. I’m not supposed to be there. If anyone finds out I’m living there, or she doesn’t want us there anymore, we’re gone. It’s only temporary.”

“It’s like — it’s October, and you’re sleeping in the graveyard or in parks, because no one will mess with you there. It’s rock bottom. It’s horrible.”

Existence is fragile

I ask them how they get by. Food stamps help, they say. So do food boxes.

“I have a job — but I’m sick of working at food places. My dream job? Anywhere but restaurants.”

“I worked this summer at the state fair. It was great, I’m a really hard worker and it was a lot of fun. I camped out there, and the vendors usually fed us at the end of the day, because they knew how hard we worked.”

The youths barter or beg, when they have to. “I’m pretty good at getting what I need.”

No options

Life is hard for youth, if you’re on the streets of Fairbanks, but these young people are incredibly creative and resilient. They don’t choose this life lightly — they choose it only when they feel they have no other option. Some don’t choose it at all. Many youths have run away from home, facing conflict or crisis that makes them feel that returning home is not an option. Many of our homeless youth are not runaways at all — but have been kicked out of a home or abandoned or are fleeing danger, dysfunction and neglect in the home. These stories remind us that, however many youth there may be, homeless and on their own in Fairbanks, they are each facing challenges no child should have to.

Every year, hundreds of young people sleep rough in Fairbanks. Many are unidentified. The school district, since August this year, has identified 53 courageous youths attending school without the support of a parent or guardian. Many students actively avoid identification, hiding their homeless status from school workers. Many other homeless youths have stopped attending school, finding it too difficult to remain focused on their education while their home lives are in crisis. We don’t know how many youth in Fairbanks are without stable homes each year, we just know that that number is too high.

Sarah Smith, from Micanopy, Fla., is a Volunteer In Service to America serving her second term at Fairbanks Youth Advocates (www.Fairbanks

YouthAdvocates.org). This winter, the organization will host a temporary emergency shelter for youths in partnership with First Presbyterian Church of Fairbanks, and they’re looking for volunteers. For information about homeless youth, contact Fairbanks Counseling and Adoption’s Street Outreach and Advocacy Program at 374-9913.