Daisy Vargas is a knowledgeable tour guide. She's a Tri-City native and she loves the outdoors, so she's spent plenty of time here exploring points off the beaten path.
And she works as the supervisor of My Friends Place in Kennewick, the only teen homeless shelter in southeastern Washington. Her young charges sometimes give her insight about where to go.
"This little park," Vargas said Friday morning, pointing across a street in Kennewick, "there's always a lot of people who sleep in their cars (parking) here."
In Zintel Canyon, she showed a small clearing off a trail that was littered with clothes and other items, where someone might have spent the night.
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In other spots, she found more blankets, clothes, even a tent -- remnants of life lived on the edges.
Vargas heads out on outreach excursions around the Tri-Cities a couple of times a week, in search of homeless youth.
She brings tote bags stuffed with clothes, food, hygiene items and information about local resources, including My Friends Place.
The teen shelter opened in 2011, and recently it's been seeing between five and 15 youths in a given week. Some stay the night and others drop in solely for a meal or a brief respite.
Vargas said the youths she meets on her outreach excursions sometimes show up.
That's the idea.
Seeking help at a shelter can be a scary prospect for a teen, but Vargas' personal visits can help make the visit easier, said Karen Kirk-Brockman, executive director of Safe Harbor Support Center, the nonprofit that operates My Friends Place. Also, "I think the kids need to see that there's somebody out there that's looking for them, that they matter," Kirk-Brockman said.
It's difficult to pinpoint the exact number of teens who are homeless in the Tri-Cities and beyond. The National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates that in a year there are about 550,000 "unaccompanied single youth and young adults" who are homeless for more than a week in the U.S.
The most recent figures from the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction -- for the 2011-12 school year -- put the number of students reported as homeless in Washington at 27,390.
Vargas, who holds a bachelor's degree in social work, started her outreach trip Friday morning on a trail in Zintel Canyon. After a while, she veered off, to a clearing. No one was there, but someone had been at some point -- clothes, shoes and blankets were piled up, and cans were strewn about. A book sat on the ground: God's Word for Every Circumstance.
Vargas left a couple of tote bags.
She continued on for about an hour -- stopping at other sites in Zintel Canyon and around Kennewick.
She didn't find any youth that day. But she left tote bags.
And she'll be back.
Vargas said the simple act of giving a youth in need something tangible, with no strings attached and no questions asked, is powerful.
"I don't know," she said of her work. "It's like a calling."
More information about Safe Harbor and My Friends Place: www.crisis-nursery.org.
w Sara Schilling: 582-1529; firstname.lastname@example.org;Twitter: @saraTCHerald