On any given night in Minnesota, it's estimated that about 600 people under the age of 17 are homeless and on their own.

Some run away from their families. Others are thrown away. Numbers have been increasing in recent years.

Despite that, Ramsey County has only 16 emergency shelter beds for homeless youth.

A report accepted by the County Board last week highlights the dire consequences runaways face, the dark choices many of them must make and the desperate need for more shelter space. It also provides a plan to bring together public and private money to create space for an additional 30 youths.

"Sixteen beds is just shocking -- 16 beds," said Ramsey County Commissioner Jim McDonough. "That's just not enough. We've got more kids than that on the street every night."

A broad group of foundations, nonprofits and government agencies shares his opinion. Their goal is to create a safe place where youths can check themselves in and get access to various services. But how long will it take to find more space?

"There's no money set aside for this project and, with budgets the way they are, funding will be a real challenge," said Anita Berg, executive director of Partners for Violence Prevention. Her group led the study, which began in 2008 and was supported by a $100,000 grant from the state.

"Even in the direst of economic times it still makes sense to invest in an early intervention that can prevent much more costly consequences," said Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner. "If we don't help these young people with a safe place to be and access to services, we're going to pay as a community, as taxpayers, a lot more down the line to address their needs."

Gaertner listed some of those consequences: Runaways are vulnerable to health problems, sexual exploitation, health problems and becoming victims of crime. They often aren't able to stay in school. A disproportionate number of runaways often commit crimes.

What to do next?

The report offers three options on making the extra space: renovate an existing place that currently has no room for homeless youth, expand an existing shelter or build new. Renovation is estimated to cost between $100,000 to $2 million. Expansion or building new is estimated to cost between $850,000 and $1.5 million.

Depending on whether the shelter is open 24 hours per day or only overnight, operating costs are estimated to cost from $473,000 to $2.5 million, according to the report.

Funding could be split between the government, grants and private donations, the report said.

McDonough said that although it's unclear exactly what the timeline is and where the money will come from to expand the shelter space, he's encouraged to see that people in government, nonprofits and foundations are willing to find a solution.

The County Board last Tuesday asked the St. Paul-Ramsey County Department of Public Health to take over the cause and see what can happen next.

Rob Fulton, the department's director, said he has created a work group that will look for money and other opportunities. However, the report's original goal of creating space for 30 more beds by 2012 doesn't seem likely, he said.

Chris Havens • 612-673-4148