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Garden State Topic: Lack of Housing for Young People Hits Home in NJ, Nationwide

Youths with nowhere to go need counseling, education, safe places and adult mentors.

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This month the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development released results of its “point in time” survey, for which local teams count all the homeless people to be found on one night in January.

In New Jersey, there were 13,025 people without permanent housing that night, including 2,695 severely mentally ill people and 592 veterans. More than 1,500 of them were found in Newark or elsewhere in Essex County.

Those totals don’t parse out all of the young people who have no place to go, the young adults who aged out of foster care without families, who got kicked out of their homes for being gay or pregnant, or who are couch-surfing because their parents can’t or won’t shelter them.

Counting homeless young people is a challenge in any season – for their own safety, young people with no place to go often don't want to be recognized and work hard to remain invisible. Pimps, muggers, and gangs quickly sniff out vulnerable young people, and those stories don't end well.

With the right amount of political will, we can reduce youth homelessness, while saving society significant money. We have the tools available to keep kids off the streets, in safe families; we just need more people to join the movement to protect vulnerable young people.

Our gubernatorial candidates, whoever they may be, should tackle these issues in their campaigns. Youth homelessness is not inevitable, and it can end in our lifetime. This battle is absolutely winnable. To do so, here's what needs to happen:

Fight Human Trafficking Robustly: Too many homeless young people, both male and female, end up in prostitution, and therefore in grave danger.

The demand for sexually exploited young people – most of whom were born in this country -- can be reduced simply by enforcing existing laws. Police need to be aggressive with sting operations to find pimps and johns. Our police academies need to train officers to look for the signs of trafficking, much as they strengthened their instruction on domestic violence intervention in the wake of new reform laws decades ago.

And every state should follow New York and New Jersey’s lead and pass Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Youth Acts, which treat minors arrested for prostitution as victims. Trafficked children can then receive shelter and services, instead of a sentence to juvenile detention, but more safe beds and supportive services like education and job training are needed, to help them rebuild their lives.

Pimps and exploiters search out vulnerable kids on the street, so as we make progress reducing the number of homeless young people with nowhere safe to go, we can reduce the supply of future prostituted kids.

Mental Health: Homeless young people, former foster kids, and those at risk of becoming homeless need comprehensive and affordable counseling, substance-abuse treatment, and medical care that is conveniently located and free of stigma.

We know how to make it easier for homeless kids to obtain meaningful and helpful mental health care, as we’ve shown in our Vancouver, B.C., shelter, which has three master’s-level clinicians and four social workers, so kids with complex needs who desire counseling or substance abuse treatment can get help on-site.

A psychiatrist is available to see kids before and after school or work, to accommodate their schedules, and another is on-call 24 hours a day. The average wait to see a psychiatrist dropped from six months to eight days, kids went from keeping half of their appointments to making 80 to 90 percent of them, and over three years the number of annual hospitalizations from the shelter dropped drastically, from 15 to three.

Education: Homeless young people benefit from schools that are welcoming and tailored to their needs.

Programs in regular schools that offer mentors, job placements, clothing, health care, tutoring, scholarships and referrals to shelter can help them graduate from high school. Without a diploma, it's hard to find any living-wage job in this economy.

Covenant House Michigan has launched three charter high schools to help the 90 percent of youth in the shelter who had dropped out of school. Each school provides a team to work with students on their social and emotional needs, with counselors, a family liaison, and a psychologist. The schools try to move past whatever caused the young people to drop out in the first place—bullying, feeling in danger, hardships at home, not having clean clothes to wear.

More than 630 young people have earned their high school diplomas through Covenant House Michigan’s schools in the last six years. Currently, almost 60 percent of the schools’ graduates go on to some kind of formal, postsecondary training, either college, community college, trade schools, or certificate-granting programs.

Parenthood: Nurse-Family Partnerships, in which registered nurses offer prenatal care, parenting techniques and coaching sessions to young and impoverished first-time mothers, should be expanded and should be available to homeless young mothers in particular.

Programs that encourage young fathers to be involved in the lives of their children should be expanded, to help establish father-child bonds, reduce stress on young moms, and bolster the child’s chances of success in school and beyond.

We just launched our first Father-Child program for homeless young dads and their littles ones in New York City, and hope to expand the program nationally next year.

LGBTQ Kids: Families of sexual-minority young people can learn the importance of adopting accepting behaviors, to help reduce the risk that their children will become homeless, commit suicide or engage in risky behaviors.

The work of the Family Acceptance Project, based at San Francisco State University, fulfills a huge need by encouraging parents to learn about more than 50 accepting behaviors, such as talking to your children about their lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning identity, showing affection to them when they tell you who they are, and advocating for them if they are mistreated because of their identity. The project's materials should be distributed widely.

Mentors: Homeless, unaccompanied young people need individual mentors to guide them through the challenges of adolescence and early adulthood. Sometimes, just one person who believes in a kid can make a world of difference.

For the young people we followed for our book "Almost Home: Helping Kids from Homelessness to Hope," the lifeline of an adult who believed in them unconditionally helped them tap in to their resilience and reach for the sky. Homeless young people need to know that others care about them and see the bright promise of their futures. It's a job that takes time, not an advanced degree, and it's open to anyone.

Private-Public Partnerships: Given limited government resources and the growing stock of abandoned, bank-owned properties across the United States, it makes sense to imagine a new way to develop safe housing opportunities for vulnerable youth.

Federal policymakers should encourage banks, perhaps with tax incentives, to contribute foreclosed properties to nonprofit groups, and the White House could then devote a number of existing federal Section 8 housing vouchers from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, for use by youth aging out of foster care.

Rather than becoming eyesores in their neighborhoods, these vacant houses can become homes for young people who desperately need them. The program would promote the growth and redevelopment of struggling communities, while allowing youth to prepare for independent living in a safe and stable setting.

The idea involves the type of innovative partnership among child welfare nonprofits, banks, and federal agencies that too rarely occurs. It’s a cost-effective strategy to expand the safety net for young people aging out of foster care.

A combination of the above strategies could make a huge dent in the number of young people who face each night with no place safe to sleep. But kids don’t vote – they need our voices. In the upcoming campaigns for governor, voters need to demand that candidates address these issues. Our state, and our young people, deserve nothing less.

Kevin Ryan and Tina Kelley are the authors of "Almost Home: Helping Kids Move from Homelessness to Hope," (Wiley, October 2012), which tells the true stories of six young people who were helped by Covenant House. Ryan, the state’s former child advocate and commissioner of the Department of Children and Families, is president of Covenant House. Kelley is a former New York Times reporter who shared in a Pulitzer Prize in Public Service for coverage of 9/11.

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