Lino Lakes Fire Chief Jerry Streich recalled his days as a Coon Rapids High School football player -- when he would leave practice and sleep away the night in a hotel or car.

"Nobody knew I was homeless," he said.

"There was a time between ninth and 11th grade where we were searching, trying to find resources to get by, not knowing what to do or fully understanding why this had happened to us," Streich said. "Thankfully, the community helped us."

A grass-roots community has rallied once again, this time creating a drop-in site in Anoka for homeless youth. Hope 4 Youth could open as early as Feb. 21.

The center is expected to be a safe haven for young, wandering souls -- a place where youngsters can eat, shower, wash clothes, seek counseling and use computers to search for jobs. The long-term goal is to be able to provide a warm meal every day for kids who otherwise might go hungry, said Karrie Schaaf, homeless youth and families liaison for the Anoka-Hennepin School District.

Nobody can say for certain how many homeless teenagers live in Anoka County. They sleep in port-a-potties and cars, camp under bridges, ride buses all night or hop from couch to couch in a nomadic existence that defies traditional head counts. But authorities are fairly certain that the county's homeless youth population has grown at a frightening pace the past few years.

On Jan. 25, 2012, an unscientific count found 1,463 homeless individuals in Anoka County. Of those, 150 were homeless youths ages 12 to 18. That's 40 percent more than the 108 who were counted the year before. And those numbers are considered bare-bones estimates.

This school year there already have been 520 homeless students counted in the Anoka-Hennepin School District, Schaaf said. While those numbers include students who don't live in Anoka County, excluded are students in the county's other school districts: Centennial, Columbia Heights, Fridley, Spring Lake Park and St. Francis.

Brian Swanson said he read that there could be as many as 1,000 homeless kids in Anoka County. Swanson, part of a management team for a business based in Ham Lake, didn't wait to see if the various estimates of the numbers of homeless youth were accurate. He called Schaaf and Casey Schleisman, the youth development director with the Emma B. Howe YMCA in Coon Rapids, and didn't mince words.

They scheduled a meeting at a local coffee shop for four days later. But word spread quickly and within the four days, more than 25 people said they wanted to attend. The meeting was moved to the YMCA.

"You tell me what needs to be done," Swanson told others. "Don't be afraid to think big."

Schaaf has dreamed for years of creating a drop-in center for homeless youth.

"All it took was a parent who was angry that kids are sleeping outside," she said. "The difference this time was that Brian Swanson was willing to pull in some heavy hitters to make this happen."

Discussion began in November. Swanson's church donated $10,000. The city of Anoka said it would help with zoning regulations. Local business people said they were ready to roll up their sleeves. A Hope 4 Youth Facebook page was created.

Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, owns property in Anoka and was willing to lease building space at a minimum rate. A church had just left a space that Abeler owned. The church had refinished the flooring and walls.

"It was move-in ready -- and it had to be," Abeler said. "We don't do things quickly, but, from the day we started, Brian Swanson said he wanted to do this in two months. We'll be close -- thanks to his drive and passion."

There were others who were equally driven -- including a girl who lived in the woods for an extended period, and Streich.

The fire chief said he was appalled after reading recently about the homeless youth of Anoka County. He and his wife, Lori, were eager to lend their services.

He remembered how a Coon Rapids firefighter was there for him when he needed direction. Streich also knew better than most that many homeless kids are not on the streets by choice. In his case, his parents divorced and his mother, who had four boys to raise, struggled with bills.

"I remained positive because of good mentors in the community," Streich said. "It really made me who I am today."

Board members and community members of all ages have met every Tuesday at the site at 2664 4th Av. N. in Anoka -- painting walls, installing a shower and relishing a work in progress that some never thought was possible.

One young student offered a message of gratitude on the site's Facebook page.

"You saved me," the note says. "I am so thankful."

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419