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Lost in paradise

  • Jessie Dirks and Charlotte Warren waking up from under a bundle of blankets and sleeping bags on a cold early Monday morning in a West End neighborhood park of Santa Rosa. Nov. 25, 2013. (ERIK CASTRO/ FOR SONOMA MAGAZINE)

The rain fell hard that day. The tent he’d pitched in Howarth Park had leaked and Gerri Jackson’s bed of piled blankets was wet. His Santa Rosa Junior College math textbook was damp.

And he’d just gotten word from a campmate that someone was going to kick them out in 10 days.

“Where’m I gonna go, go, go, bro — I don’t know, I never know,” he said.

The 22-year-old’s singsong voice was just another sound in the night on a muddy hillside tangled with brush and trees, where Gerri was living with the skunks and deer.

It was better than the pavement outside Chop’s Teen Center, where he’d been sleeping days before.

“Concrete sucks the life out of you,” said Gerri, a Chicago native homeless on the streets of Santa Rosa since early 2011.

Adrift and often unknown amid the plenty of Sonoma County, homeless young people reel from abandonment or rejection, flee abuse or broken homes, exit the foster care system unmoored at 18.

They wander, their conditions anonymous, through shopping malls, parks and city centers, ride buses, scrounge free food, cigarettes and, often, drugs. They search for the next safe place to sleep.

Gerri is one of more than a thousand young people under age 24 who are the fastest growing segment of the county’s estimated 4,280 homeless residents. This year’s count revealed 277 teens between the ages 12 and 17 who have nowhere to live — a 200 percent increase in four years.

“They are terrifying statistics,” said Georgia Berland, executive officer of the Sonoma County Task Force on the Homeless.

“What does it mean to their stability, to their ability to engage in society, to be productive?” she said. “If kids are going to be growing up feeling that their community doesn't even care enough for them to have a roof over their head, that means they’re not going to feel connected to their community. That doesn’t bode well for us.”

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