Where there's a will

October 23, 2005

In Maryland's cities and elsewhere, an underclass of disconnected teens and young adults struggles silently to make a life and a living. They need help - from guardians, neighborhoods and governments. Instead, they are neglected or they receive such unreliable aid that they feel safer going it alone. That's dangerous for them and for Maryland, which cannot afford to lose at least 15 percent of its future work force statewide, according to an estimate by the nonprofit Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Based on the outpouring of response to The Sun's recent series profiling two high-schoolers living as vagabonds without parents or social services, the will to help such kids is there. What's needed now are the methods - and the means. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Mayor Martin O'Malley should appoint someone to ensure coordinated, speedy help for these often desperate young adults.

There is no dearth of ideas as to what form that help might take. Such school-based solutions as a public boarding school could help kids slipping into trouble as early as sixth or seventh grade. Coppin State University also is considering a "wraparound" high school, with services based at school before and well after regular hours, as well as temporary housing as needed. And the city school system is pursuing a similar wraparound model, called "community schools." All have merit.

For those who have fallen out of school and onto hard times, the Fellowship of Lights, a temporary shelter for a handful of teenagers, seeks to expand its services. A coalition of advocates and officials also is working on a plan that could offer supervised apartment living with job and life-skills training until students get steady work and can live adequately on their own.

All are good ideas for their chosen targets. They likely would need consistent - and substantial - public funding. Many would need changes in legislation to make it easier for underage children to live in alternate settings while ensuring their safety and well-being.

None is the whole solution, which is why a strong coordinator is necessary. These disconnected kids can't afford yet more disconnected remedies.

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