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LA's homeless and once-homeless youth help keep track of their own (Photos)

David Foyer conducts the Homeless Count survey outside of McDonald's in Hollywood, Calif. while police clear out  homeless youths loitering outside the business.
David Foyer conducts the Homeless Count survey outside of McDonald's in Hollywood, Calif. while police clear out homeless youths loitering outside the business.
Mae Ryan/KPCC

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Trying to help people in need is hard when they're doing all they can to be hidden. That's especially a problem with youth homelessness.

Every year the Department of Housing and Urban Development requires communities to take a census of their homeless populations. These figures help determine where to distribute funds and how to prioritize services, for example.

However, homeless youths — classified by HUD as 18- to 24-year-olds — often go uncounted, or when they are, the number is very fuzzy.

"The [national] estimates have ranged from 600,000 to 1.6 million," says Barbara Poppe, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. "It’s really hard to make a case of how to fill the gaps because we don’t know what those gaps are."

Counting older adults and families with young children tends to be easier because they are more likely to use shelters and services, putting them in a position to be seen and tallied. However 18- to 24-year-olds will tend to avoid shelters and service providers out of safety.

"They're dirty, nasty, and overfilled," says Justin Anderson, 24, who was living on the streets of Hollywood.

They also go missed because they try to hide on purpose from older adults. In Seattle, says Poppe, "Youth who are on the street will, within 45 minutes, be approached by a gang member or some other predator."

Youths may also try to blend in with the crowd, making them indistinguishable from other people their age walking down the street.

Los Angeles has a unique way of tracking and counting them: other homeless youths. Pioneered by the Hollywood Homeless Youth Partnership, L.A.'s homeless providers disperse throughout the city in teams for a point-in-time count in January. Among these teams are current and former homeless youths who've been recruited to help spot their own.

Kevin Bates, 21, was among the group. He says when he came out as gay to his family, he was kicked out. Bates had been living on the streets for a year and a half before finding at the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center.

They recruited him for this count, and he thinks of it as a "sixth sense."

"When you see it, you kind of know," Bates says. "You can tell because, myself, I’ve been in this situation so I can tell, okay, that looks like me a year ago."

Having youths on teams also makes it easier to approach those on the streets, says Kristin Brock, outreach specialist for youth services at LAGLC.

"Generally, people who don't necessarily need the services that are alone don't want to talk to you," said Brock.

But that presence can put youths at ease, and make them more willing to talk. They are also more likely to know the squats and hiding places not reachable by older adults, and and can point teams to those locations. Because of this strategy, Los Angeles knows there are nearly 4,000 youths living on the streets as of its last official count in 2011.

"Were we not to have done that, we would’ve missed 50 percent of our 18-24 homeless youths," says Mark Silverbush, a policy and planning analyst at the LA Homeless Services Authority.

LAHSA organizes the city's count and this year, for the first time, is also conducting follow-up surveys that will pinpoint on homeless youths who are LGBT, who account for anywhere between 20 - 40% of that population.

"It helps us to break down these large numbers in L.A. County into smaller pieces so that we can see how to better line up resources," says Silverbush.

Barbara Poppe from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness says, "We cite California as a place we’d love to see other states begin to do the work that Los Angeles started."

USICH is studying how nine communities this year, including Los Angeles, conduct their count of youths. When the final census and survey results are released this summer, the group hopes to assemble best practices that the rest of the nation can follow.

The hope is that having clearer numbers will help more of them be like Kevin Bates, who just last month got off the streets, got a job at Forever 21, and into his own apartment.

"To know there are people who give their time and energy to make sure that you have a roof over your head and food in your stomach," said Bates. "Take full advantage of it."