In the shadows of Los Angeles, often called the homeless capital of the United States, thousands of youth like Marlon, Josue, Cherrick, and David find shelter any given night beside freeways, in hidden spaces, feeling vulnerable, isolated, invisible.

“I ran away at 15 and slept on stairs,” says Marlon. “I don’t know if people were worried about me, but I think no one was worried about me. I was in the streets by myself. As time goes by, you kind of get used to it.”

Each has a unique story; yet there are similarities. Eventually, they discovered Jovenes Inc. and with it, a lifeline.

Mostly, they are young men of color, ages 18 to 25, whose families have experienced a major challenge like unemployment, incarceration, illness or injury making it difficult to care for aging children.

Some have experienced violence, abuse and other trauma. Often they have stumbled into the detention, immigration, or criminal justice systems. Some have aged out of foster care. With minimal education, life and coping skills, they have nowhere to go. Some are undocumented.

Estimates of the numbers of homeless youth in Los Angeles range as high as 10,000; the Rev. Richard Estrada believes it to be about 3,500.

Estrada, associate priest at the Church of the Epiphany in Los Angeles, founded Jovenes, a nonprofit agency, in 1989 after seeing increasing numbers of homeless young men, often undocumented, “very much like it is today,” he said.

“There were immigrant children, unaccompanied children who would have to leave or be sent out of harm’s way from El Salvador, Guatemala and travel through Mexico and sneak across the border.”

Then, “it was really hard for them to find shelter because there were no Spanish-speaking bilingual staff and they were terrified about their legal status,” he recalled.

First, stable housing

Josue’s father died when he was six; he and his mother struggled to survive. He dropped out of school and wandered the streets until his uncle brought him to North America in search of better opportunities.

At 12 he learned to read and write but an argument with his uncle propelled him into homelessness. He moved from emergency shelter to shelter.

The four youth shared their stories in “From Invisible to Invincible,” an introductory video about the nonprofit agency’s mission to “help be that familiar place you can call home,” according to executive director Andrea Marchetti.

For some youth, especially the long-term homeless, “a shelter strategy just doesn’t work,” he said. “Jovenes has to do remedial work for all these years of neglect; youth go through abandonment, neglect, abuse.”

Last year, Jovenes Inc. served 141 youth in a variety of programs. Besides offering emergency shelter, the Boyle Heights-based nonprofit also provides longer-term, more permanent housing, case management, life skills, employment and job-readiness counseling, leadership development and mental health services.

Jovenes’ goal is to give youth a safe place to stay, and access to food and resources, “so that we can surround them with positive input. We are flexible in our approach,” Marchetti said.

A “rapid re-housing” program offers a yearlong rental subsidy competitive with market rates. Jovenes pays the rent the first year, subsequently decreasing assistance proportionately, as the youths develop financial resources.

Marlon stands at a freeway overpass where he lived before Jovenes. “I stayed on this spot right here; then I’d go out on the streets to survive, to do my thing on a daily basis,” he says in the video. “I’d sleep, drink, do hard-core drugs to stimulate my mind. It’s not just the place messing with your mind … it’s not the place to be for young people.”

Mental disability and substance abuse issues require a flexible approach, with a focus on stable housing first, according to Marchetti. “If you have a severe disability or challenges in your life, we try to put you in housing right away, then work on the other issues.”

Finding family, finding purpose

A physical confrontation with his father landed David in the juvenile justice system at 12, he says in the video.

Later, he was homeless “for about six years without anybody noticing. A lot of youth become homeless because their parents hit them or neglect them or don’t take care of them,” he said.

“They come out of foster care because they didn’t have no one to care for them from the beginning. People don’t understand, youth these days are not in gangs and doing drugs because they want to. They have nothing else to do, running the streets … they join gangs because they think that’s family.”

A social worker told him about Jovenes and eventually it became like family for him. “I came here in April 2011 and I’ve been here since.”

With his own apartment, he says, “I believe that living in a stable home can help me achieve my goals. I sleep and rest and wake up the next day to do whatever it is I need to do to reach my goals.”

Marchetti said housing options are evaluated by age, income, and mental assessment and prepare the way for growth and development. “After a few months of having their basic needs met, they can begin to think about ‘what am I going to do with my life?’.”

Personal growth requires patience, as homeless youth typically have multiple challenges, Marchetti said.

“When we know that you’re mentally disabled or maybe have a substance abuse problem — well, expecting that a youth at 18 experiencing those issues is going to get a full-time job forever is not very realistic,” he said.

Art, college, individualized focus

Cherrick envisions himself “in the future not ever being homeless again, (and) to work as a musician pursuing my dreams and going to school.”

At three years old, “I spent most of my time locked in a room with tiny windows. One day a strange woman appeared and took me away. She was my mother.” After suffering physical, mental and emotional abuse he went to foster care, where a case manager adopted him.

He moved to California to follow his dream of being a singer-songwriter and ended up homeless on Skid Row. He learned about Jovenes on the streets.

Marchetti said the agency is developing a curriculum to include paid internships, community engagement, career development, and employment as well as launching a college success initiative that examines the challenges of homeless youth in attending community college and four-year institutions.

“We are trying to count on the resiliency youth have,” he said. “This is in line with the new strategy the city and county are trying to develop to keep the most expensive resources for the people that are most vulnerable.”

Marlon explains his original artwork in the video: “That’s my dad. He died when I was three. I never met him so really it doesn’t matter. My mother died in 2006. That’s me, kind of sad. That’s me, crossing the border. I decided to come to the USA.

“Hey, hey, look at this one,” he says. “This is me and my family. I guess I have family here but I never met them before. Here’s a picture of me running away, and sleeping under stairs in south L.A.

“I used to drink to make my day go by faster every day. That’s me, lost and confused in this world.”

Then came Jovenes, and Marlon’s goal of being an entertainer. “I’m not there yet,” he said. “I still got to work towards it. I feel like I’ll get there one day.