Michael Vazquez, who graduated from high school with support from Youth on Their Own, is finishing two years at Pima Community College and soon will enter Arizona State University.

A growing number of Tucson-area youths are becoming casualties of economic and family instability.

Referrals to a local nonprofit program for homeless youths are up 60 percent this year. Nearly 1,000 Southern Arizona teens are enrolled in the Tucson-based Youth on Their Own, which group leaders believe is the highest number of young people the 28-year-old organization has ever helped in one school year.

When the local and national economy began to falter in 2007 and 2008, families felt the effects. But now many have tapped out savings and become desperate, Youth on Their Own program director Deb Seng said.

"It does not surprise me. It's a tragedy and illustrative of the silent poverty in our midst," said Peggy Hutchison, co-chair of Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild's commission on poverty. "We don't see it if we are not engaged day in and day out."

Youth on Their Own, which will hold its major annual fundraiser this weekend, gives young people ages 12 through 21 economic incentives to stay in school and to get good grades. Its graduates include lawyers, teachers and nurses.

Nineteen-year-old Tucsonan Michael Vazquez, a program graduate who will speak at the fundraiser, says he could have easily dropped out of school and can barely bring himself to imagine where he'd be now. Vazquez, an accomplished cellist, was homeless at 15.

Without intervention, teens who are homeless and abandoned are highly likely to drop out of high school and spend their adult lives in poverty, joblessness and often involved in the criminal-justice system.

Seventy percent of homeless youths who don't graduate from high school will end up in prison or jail, which is why the organization is so focused on making sure students earn a diploma, said Youth on Their Own executive director Teresa Liverzani-Baker.

Just giving a teen the support needed to stay in school can yield amazing results, she said.

"Night and Day"

Vazquez said going to school was often difficult for him. Until he got involved with Youth on Their Own, it didn't seem to matter whether he went or not.

At one point he was living with a family member whose home was so far away from his school that he had to leave at 4:30 a.m. if he wanted to make it in time.

"When I was a freshman I wanted to drop out," Vazquez said. "I was mad. I wondered why this was happening to me."

Two things kept him in school - music and Youth on Their Own. When he was in sixth grade, Vazquez began playing the cello. He says it didn't come naturally, but it held his interest.

He practiced and got better. Though he may have skipped other classes, he always went to music and always played in his school orchestra.

One of Vazquez's teachers at Flowing Wells High School referred him to Youth on Their Own, which helped him find stable housing through a Tucson-based nonprofit called Open Inn.

Youth on Their Own uses an incentive system that allows students to earn up to $125 per month depending on their attendance and academic success.

Vazquez's grades immediately improved and for the first time he was able to afford clothes and a cellphone.

"It was like night and day," he said. "I started caring."

At Open Inn, Vazquez lived in a town home with a roommate and staff members on site. He enjoyed the rules, including the structure of having curfew and set times when he needed to do cleaning and put everything away before getting permission to leave the house.

He began putting more time into practicing cello and earned a two-year scholarship to Pima Community College, where he now spends hours per day playing the music of classical composers like Bach, Brahms and Dvorak.

The practice has paid off. Vazquez recently found out he earned a scholarship to attend Arizona State University to study cello performance. He auditioned with pieces by Haydn, J.S. Bach and a David Popper cello étude.

He dreams of earning a doctorate and one day playing with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Living in cars

The students currently enrolled in Youth on Their Own include teens whose parents are drug addicts and alcoholics.

One boy was abandoned by his mother when she lost her job in Tucson and moved to Florida without him. Another girl found herself without a family when the grandparents who were raising her both died within a few years of one another. Seng met one girl whose only pair of jeans were held together with duct tape. Others are living with their families in cars.

Seng stressed that the teens don't typically tell their peers about their living situations. They are often ashamed.

Their homelessness is often not visible since they are frequently living with friends and relatives, or in vehicles and washes that are hidden from public sight.

A recent U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey, using data from 2011, ranked Tucson as the sixth poorest metropolitan area in the country. The report says nearly one-third of all Tucson youths and children under the age of 18 are living in poverty.

That far exceeds the 12 percent of Tucson seniors over the age of 65 who are living in poverty, the report says.

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Seng said some of the increase in referrals to Youth on Their Own is due to better awareness about the organization, but there's also no question that more local youths are missing caring, adult support and a consistent home environment.

Youths without a stable place to live are going to have a very tough time being successful at school unless they have some kind of help, Liverzani-Baker said.

"You can't do homework if you haven't slept, you haven't eaten, your clothing is dirty and you have no supplies," she said. "You are busy focusing on how to survive. School is secondary, or maybe not on the list."

Patti Caldwell, executive director of the nonprofit Our Family, which works with Youth On Their Own to help young people find housing, believes the Tucson community as a whole has limited knowledge of homelessness among young people because so few social service providers work with that population.

"It's rough. It's really, really rough. There are youths who just don't have the stability and support to be successful," said Hutchison, who is chief executive officer of the local Primavera Foundation as well as co-chair of the mayor's poverty commission.

"If we as a community are really committed to making sure we get rid of as much poverty as we can and giving families safe places to live, work and play, we really have to go above and beyond to see, hear and engage folks who are really trying to change their lives."

Good outcomes are possible.

Vazquez will do his part by telling his story at Youth on Their Own's fundraiser this weekend.

"Going to school can change your life. It certainly changed mine," he said. "I wouldn't be playing cello, that's for sure."

How to help

The nonprofit Tucson-based Youth On Their Own will hold its "Talk of the Town 2013" fundraiser on Saturday at Loews Ventana Resort, 7000 N. Resort Drive. Tickets are $125 per person or $1,150 for a table of 10. The organization also has opportunities for members of the public to sponsor individual students for the school year, as well as other donation options. For information go online to yoto.org or call 293-1136.

"You can't do homework if you haven't slept, you haven't eaten, your clothing is dirty and you have no supplies."

Teresa Liverzani-Baker, executive director, Youth on Their Own

Contact reporter Stephanie Innes at sinnes@azstarnet.com or 573-4134. On Twitter: @stephanieinnes