Suddenly, homeless teenagers are all over the Twin Cities -- cities and suburbs alike -- sleeping in port-a-potties and cars, camping under bridges or riding buses all night.

"Part of it is the economy, but we're also doing a better job of identifying who is homeless," said Karrie Schaaf, considered a state expert on youth homelessness in the metro area. "And now that times are hard economically, they're coming out of the woodwork."

Some are children of economically stressed families that have been forced to double up with other families; they simply don't have room to house older kids, said Schaaf, youth director for the Emma B. Howe Family YMCA in Coon Rapids.

Others were evicted from their homes on their 18th birthdays by struggling families facing foreclosure, said Judy Johnson, housing supervisor in Anoka County.

In Minnesota, the number of 18- to 21-year-olds in shelters more than doubled in the past three years, rising from 455 in 2006 to 987 last October, the Minnesota Department of Human Services said. In Anoka County, the homeless 18-21 population doubled in the past year alone, according to a January survey.

Family financial woes aren't the only cause of youth homelessness, but the strains of the economy have divided families.

"I miss meals all the time, and sometimes I won't fall asleep until 5 in the morning, if I fall asleep at all," said Maria Oldenburg, 18, a senior at Centennial Learning Center. She says she was asked to leave her father's home last summer, when she was 17, because she hadn't found a job, as he demanded, and she didn't get along with his girlfriend. At least two of her homeless friends were evicted by parents who said they could no longer afford them.

"I daydream about the perfect life, but I've stayed at 10 different houses since last summer, and rarely for more than two days at a time," Oldenburg said from the safety of a school conference room. "If things get really bad, I know I can count on my boyfriend. He's 16. He'll let me use his cell phone."

Statewide, the number of homeless families with children rose by 27 percent between 2006 and 2009, according to a study by the Wilder Foundation that counted 9,452 homeless adults, youths and children in shelters. The rise in the number of people 21 and under in shelters was more dramatic -- with 1,207 counted last October, compared with 867 in 2006.

Anoka County's recent homeless tally is sobering -- particularly the number of young adults. While the overall number of homeless people counted Jan. 27 showed a 30 percent rise in the past year, the number of homeless aged 18 to 21 was believed to have risen from 54 in 2009 to 106 in 2010. But that doesn't include 114 homeless students from the Centennial and Columbia Heights school districts, who were counted after the January survey.

Few live in shelters. Stepping Stone Emergency Housing, the only licensed emergency shelter in Anoka County, has only 16 beds -- 11 for men and five for women.

"We're seeing cases where youth and parents were unaware of foreclosure and when they get the notice in the mail, the 18- and 19-year-olds are out on their own," said Denise Williams, supervisor for Project OffStreets. The program is run by Minneapolis-based YouthLink, a nonprofit provider that specializes in the needs of homeless and precariously housed youths, ages 14 to 21.

'Night on the Street'

The extent of the homeless youth crisis was visible last Friday, when the nonprofit Plymouth Church Neighborhood Foundation held its "Night on the Street" in the church parking lot, inviting 400 teenagers from 31 congregations to sleep in cardboard boxes. Participants represented homeless kids in communities from Minnetonka to Maplewood.

Meanwhile, hundreds of other teenagers shivered out of the public eye.

Ronnie Ward, 21, has been homeless since he was 17, having lived with friends in Blaine, Columbia Heights, Brooklyn Park and Coon Rapids. He dropped out of high school to care for his mother, who had cancer. When she died, he wondered, "Who's going to take care of me and my sisters?"

"Wherever the wind blows, that's where I go," he said this week. "I just want a life where I don't have to worry about drug dealers and gang bangers shooting at my house -- if I had my own house."

He's looking for work, but that hasn't been easy. It rarely is for homeless teens and young adults, who are viewed as having "a long-term disability because they're homeless," said Schaaf.

Through the cracks

Schaaf talks about T.K., who slept in port-a-potties. She knows of four young homeless people who were living in cars, then couldn't even do that because their license plate tabs expired.

"We don't really have a place to corral people long enough to work with them and get them back in the right place," said Barb Wold, Anoka County's housing coordinator. "We have no place to put kids. Karrie [Schaaf] is just drowning in kids."

With waiting lists at shelters, good housing options are limited. Lincoln Place in Eagan, believed to be the first suburban transitional center for youths facing homelessness, opened April 1. It has 24 efficiency apartments for ages 18 to 24. In Minneapolis, Nicollet Square, a new $9.2 million structure, is scheduled to open this fall to help young adults transition from homelessness or foster care and become economically self-sufficient. The rents will be modest, but there will be only 42 studio apartments.

On April 29, YouthLink in Minneapolis will break ground on its Youth Opportunity Center -- a one-stop shop that will direct homeless youths to needed services.

"For now, I just take it one day at a time, not knowing where I might be staying tomorrow," said Maria Oldenburg, the high school senior, who knows of kids who sleep outside, down the block from the Centennial Lakes police station in Circle Pines.

"I love school," Oldenburg said. "It's the one constant in my life. I'm excited about the play we're doing here, 'The Wizard of Oz.'

"I'm the Good Witch."

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419