Dressed in jeans and carrying a backpack, 21-year-old Santa Monica College freshman Japheth Craig Dyer looks like a typical college kid who might've just pulled an all-nighter. But he wasn't up late studying.
"I didn't have nowhere to sleep last night," he says. "So ... kind of tired, but I'm not too worried about it. I'll just make sure I get some rest whenever I can."
He's sitting on a bench in the shade — just inside, the cafeteria teems with students eating, chatting and studying.
Dyer is part of a homeless population that's been invisible for a long time. The latest homeless count in Los Angeles showed a 64 percent increase in the number of 18- to 24-year-olds on the streets since last year, to a total of nearly 6,000. But experts say that dramatic rise is largely due to the fact that authorities got better at counting.
Bill Bedrossian, the CEO of Covenant House California, a nonprofit specifically serving homeless 18- to 24-year-olds, says the latest number "is the number we've been saying for the last five to six years."
Homeless people in this age group are frequently hidden from plain sight, Bedrossian says. Instead of sleeping on sidewalks or in shelters, they often stay with friends or keep odd hours. This year, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority took that into account and surveyed young people about where to find their peers before the annual count.
"They really talked to young people about how, when and where to count them," Bedrossian said.
Better counting could also explain why other communities around the country have seen similar increases, like San Diego, Atlanta and Seattle. Still, the uptick isn't entirely due to better counting. It also reflects a real problem that's getting worse. Bedrossian says Covenant House has seen more young men and women seeking help in recent years, though it's difficult to quantify exactly how many more. About half are former foster kids, like Japheth Craig Dyer.
Dyer lived in foster care until he was 18, then stayed with his grandmother for a short time, but says they didn't get along. He ended up on the street about two years ago. Sometimes he stays with friends, but he spends a lot of nights aimlessly riding the bus, which he describes as "demoralizing."
Bedrossian says Dyer isn't alone, and that foster care often doesn't provide the stability people need to successfully step into adulthood.
"They're not in homes long enough to really develop family relationships when they turn 18," Bedrossian said. "The design of the foster care system is to keep your children safe. It's not to raise children."
L.A. County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl points out that California does offer some services to young people for three years after leaving foster care. But she agrees with Bedrossian that it only goes so far. Once somebody turns 18, she says, "We can't tell you what to do. We can't order people to take you in, because you're an adult."
Kuehl says the city and county recently adopted several new measures aimed at stopping former foster youth from slipping through the cracks after turning 18, including more temporary shelters for young people and help for colleges to identify and track homeless students. Students like Japheth Craig Dyer.
He plans to become a nurse, and eventually a nursing professor, but he has a long road ahead.
"I know I am going to get off the streets," Dyer said. "It might take however long but it's coming, gradually, slowly. I'm taking stepping stones."
Next step: Finding a permanent place to sleep, instead of crashing in a friend's van or napping between classes. He recently applied for room in a shelter just for college students, but won't be able to move in until next year.