Daniel Lentine slowly paces the sidewalk with a friend outside St. Malachi Parish. The yellow hood of his sweater is pulled up over his bowed head and hunched shoulders. He's holding tightly to the front of a dark blue winter jacket.
It's just after 1 p.m. on Jan. 26, and although the temperature is beginning to drop, it's still 40 degrees, much warmer than the week before.
"Hi, how are you guys?" asks Karen McHenry in a meek, motherly voice as she walks up wearing a sweater underneath a neon yellow safety vest. She holds a stack of green cards in her right hand.
The program manager for Bellefaire JCB's homeless and missing youth program is one of several people out in the streets today counting the homeless. It's part of a national point-in-time count for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
"Would you guys be interested in filling out a survey?" McHenry asks.
Lentine takes a small step back and looks to his friend for guidance. When he doesn't show any interest, Lentine turns back to McHenry.
"I would, but my hands are frozen," he says with a raspy voice, holding his hands up to show that he's wearing black insulated gloves.
McHenry takes out a pen. "You want me to fill it out for you?"
"Sure," Lentine says, after a second's hesitation.
"Do you have stable housing?" she asks.
Lentine pulls on the straps of his backpack and pivots his weight from his left foot to his right. "No," he says, keeping his eyes on the ground.
McHenry relaxes her grip on the pen and looks up at him.
"Where do you stay?" she asks.
He lifts his head to look at her. His face is pale, framed by a patchwork beard. His lips are chapped and peeling from exposure to the elements.
"Under a bridge," he says.
Only 22 years old, Lentine has been sleeping inside a 15-foot-wide alcove under a West Side bridge nearly every night for the last year. He shares the space with his 40-year-old cousin and his cousin's 47-year-old friend.
"Dude, isn't it cold?" asks McHenry.
Lentine cracks a small smile, the light in his eyes betrayed by the dark circles that surround them. "We have a lot of blankets."
There are more than 20 blankets at the bridge. They're hidden underneath a large blue tarp the trio acquired from a local church. Stacks of clothes, many of which have long gone unwashed, are folded neatly in a single file on the far left side of the space. On a branch less than 20 feet away, a roll of toilet paper hangs for when they need it.
"It's like an apartment," he says. "It's clean. It's warm."
The three function as a family. Every morning they go to St. Malachi for breakfast — a service provided by the church for those in need. Afterward, his cousin's friend holds up a sign by the freeway while Lentine and his cousin ask people for money downtown. On rare occasions, they make enough to afford a room at a downtown hotel, but most of the time they only have enough to get food at Tower City Center before heading back to the bridge for the night.
In the summer, a line of trees hides their camp, which they refer to as the Spot, from the nearby parking lot. During winter, they run the risk of being seen.
Lentine says the police let them stay there as long as they keep the area clean, but its proximity to bars and the possibility of discovery increases their risk for removal or worse — invaders. Earlier in the month, Lentine had his toothbrush, shampoo and deodorant stolen when he left it behind at the Spot.
"It's challenging," he says. "We don't know when someone is going to come under the bridge and attack us or kill us."
He carries an extra blanket in his backpack in case the others get soaked. When it's cold, he spends the day in the tech center in the basement of the Cleveland Public Library to stay warm, searching online for jobs that don't require a high school diploma.
In November, every branch of the Cleveland Public Library became designated safe spaces for children and youth in crisis. The yellow and black diamond-shaped sticker on the doors of every library and more than 500 Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority buses indicate that all staff are trained to recognize signs of homelessness and to direct youth in need of shelter and safety if they request it.
But when McHenry asks Lentine if he's tried going to an emergency shelter, he says he doesn't know where to go. He's heard of the men's shelter at 2100 Lakeside Avenue, but he's afraid of staying there.
"They steal your stuff. They jump you — I don't want none of that," says Lentine. "I'm young, so I know they're going to target me."
Lentine fits what many imagine when they think of homelessness. He's a high school dropout and former heroin addict. Although he's been clean for more than a year now, he has exhausted his resources and has nowhere left to go.
He doesn't know his father. His ties with his mother are nearly severed. When he was 7 years old, she was sentenced to three years in the Ohio Reformatory for Women. She was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for giving birth to a baby girl and allegedly suffocating her and concealing the remains inside a trash bag.
Now, Lentine occasionally visits her where she lives on the West Side, but he isn't allowed to move in.
"She don't treat me like I'm her son," he says. "When we hang out, she tells me when I have to leave."
Lentine is just one of more than 550,000 individuals under the age of 24 who experience homelessness for longer than a week each year in the United States, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
Nationally and in Ohio, homelessness has been on the decline since 2010 when President Barack Obama launched the nation's first-ever comprehensive strategy to prevent and end homelessness. In the latest HUD figures, Ohio showed an 11 percent decline in homelessness since 2010 with vast improvements in the number of homeless families, homeless veterans and chronic homelessness.
So last year, with homelessness declining among other demographics, HUD began asking shelter systems to identify and track 18- to 24-year-olds separately from the population in an effort to improve solutions for them. HUD's goal is to end all homelessness by 2020.
But local homeless advocates believe HUD's numbers don't offer a full picture. Brian Davis, executive director of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, estimates that 23,000 people were homeless in Cuyahoga County in 2014 — or almost double the HUD figure for the entire state that year. He estimates one in 10 people living in poverty in the county experienced homelessness in 2014.
Cities like Cleveland with a high rate of poverty tend to have more people doubled-up temporarily with friends and extended family, returning from prison or staying intermittently in motels, flophouses or abandoned buildings, he says.
In addition, he says, a reduction in local shelter beds and limited rental assistance means more people are living outside the federally funded housing system and thus more difficult to be counted.
This is especially true for at-risk or homeless teens and young adults.
They are in critical developmental stages of their lives, many caught in transition between childhood and adulthood, say youth advocates. They require more support, because they've either been neglected or don't have the experience to be self-sufficient. They're also frequently transient, hidden from the public eye and difficult to help.
In 2015, for example, the Cleveland/Cuyahoga County Office of Homeless Services reported that emergency shelters served 521 18- to 24-year-old individuals. Eighty-eight percent of those stayed multiple times with an average stay of 44 days.
"We're not sure if this is the tip of the iceberg or the entire iceberg," says Ruth Gillett, program director of the Office of Homeless Services.
To address the problem, more than 60 organizations and public agencies, many of which have been working to combat various aspects of homelessness for years, have come together for an initiative known as A Place 4 Me. It's goal? Eliminate youth homelessness in Cuyahoga County by the end of the decade.
"I think ending youth homelessness is an audacious goal," says Kate Lodge, project director of A Place 4 Me at the YWCA of Greater Cleveland. "But really, for any kid who shows up, we have a way in our community of addressing that young person and some resources."
The plan, which has been in development over the last two years, hopes to establish a safety net of services and create a pipeline to permanent housing for anyone 14 to 24 who is unaccompanied by a parent or legal guardian and lacks a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.
This coordinated effort is promising. But implementation is complex when you consider that even the agencies charged with addressing the issue sometimes don't agree on what it actually means to be homeless.
The problem begins in HUD's definition. It considers a person homeless if he is staying in an emergency shelter, transitional housing, a motel paid for by a government or charitable organization, or in a place not meant for human habitation. An individual at-risk of homelessness can receive support from HUD-funded programs if it can be proven the person will lose housing within 14 days and has no other resources to obtain permanent housing.
Using those definitions, Cuyahoga County reported 6,234 people within its emergency shelter system last year and 1,550 people in transitional living programs. But those numbers may be misleading — for two reasons.
First, shelters are often a path to transitional living programs, which offer housing and services for up to 24 months. Yet, the shelter system and transitional living programs each report individually to the office of homeless services, causing the potential for overlap in the data.
Additionally, the county numbers don't include people served by victim service providers such as the Domestic Violence and Child Advocacy Center or those sheltered by private organizations such as the City Mission, which served nearly 1,400 men, women and children in 2015.
There are many blind spots in the system, but perhaps the greatest is at-risk youth.
"Until the feds change the definition of homelessness, it's really hard to fit youth into our system," says Davis.
But with limited federal funding, simply expanding the definition of homelessness may do little good. "Making someone •homeless' is not a benefit to them because there are no resources for all those people," says Gillett.
That's why A Place 4 Me is important. The initiative doesn't subscribe to one definition or one funding stream. So over the next few years, the 60 organizations and the office of homeless services will implement a single standardized process for engaging youth so that the shelter system doesn't have to be the only solution.
Housing options will include prioritized public housing and a creation of a vetted network of landlords willing to rent to at-risk youth. And if along the way, a youth needs supportive services such as rental assistance, food, employment opportunities, counseling and mentorship programs, those will be made available.
"It's not like we're San Francisco," says Lodge. "It's a manageable number that our community can come around together. We got this."