04/22/2013 06:16 pm ET Updated Jun 22, 2013

Sheltering Youths

In the rambling, suburban Alternative House in Northern Virginia, just a half hour drive from the nation's Capitol, thousands of runaways, throwaways, and homeless youth have found shelter, counseling and a new start on life in the past 44 years.

But now the cuts in federal funding known as the sequester threaten to cut an already shrinking budget for youth shelters at a time of increasing need by the estimated 1.7 million homeless youth in America.

"We take youths from age 13 to 17 for up to three weeks," said Judith Dittman, the leader of Alternative House for 18 years. "We give shelter to the abused, homeless and throwaway people."

After three weeks, including counseling for the youths as well as their families, most return home. Others move on to another safe place to live -- with relatives, friends or other social service networks. "If they can't find any place safe to go, they can stay here," said Dittman with a calm and serious look that has meant safety to many hundreds of youths over the years.

Alternative House is one of dozens such shelters across the United States funded by the Federal Runaway and Homeless Youth Shelter Act (RHYA).

But the $115 million a year provided for homeless youths by the federal act is enough to shelter only 85,000 of them -- just five percent of the 1.7 million in need each year, according to Debby Shore, Chairman of the Board at the National Network for Youth (NN4Y), an advocacy and policy group.

The rest, who may remain on the street, face the risk of drugs, prostitution, dropping out of school, pregnancy, crime, acts of desperation, HIV, hepatitis, and other health problems, said Shore in an interview.

The Virginia shelter has a $2.5 million budget of which one quarter comes from the federal government, another quarter from Fairfax County, and half comes from private foundations, churches and individuals.

One of the main reasons Alternative House and similar youth shelters are necessary is that you can't send 18-year-old boys and girls to adult shelters where they can be preyed upon -- bullied, tricked, abused and robbed by crafty older residents,said Dittman.

Here the youths are assigned bunk beds in small, clean rooms. They eat in a spacious ground floor dining room and meet there for counseling, games, homework and organizing the routine of daily life.

All night long volunteers in a communication booth are ready to assist if any problems arise and take calls from anyone in need on the lonely streets. Often the police will find kids wandering the streets and refer them to Alternative House.

For older youths from 18 to 22 years of age, Alternative House has opened separate shelters where young mothers can live with their babies and where young families might stay together in safety.

RHYA, the federal law, was passed in 1976 to protect youth from 13 to 22 years old. It was a reaction to the time when many young people flocked to communes, to the Haight Ashbury neighborhood in San Francisco, New York's Lower East Side and other counter culture hangouts. Some ended up stoned, broke, in conflict and in need of shelter and protection.

"There are similar places to this around the country but, unfortunately, fewer and fewer," said Dittman. "I just heard two in Southwest Virginia closed this year. There are only two for the DC area. Baltimore for a while had none."

The federal grant her agency received each of the past few years is not enough to run her shelter, Dittman said. Fortunately the shelter has a good reputation and the community has some prosperous as well as philanthropic people. Donations are four times the federal grant.

Most of the young people living at Alternative House come because of family and mental health issues, often worsened by the recession. Parents take two jobs, no one supervises the kids, tempers are quick to flare and problems are taken out on the kids. Residents at the shelter are black, white, Asian, and Hispanic but minorities are disproportionately present since they tend to be to be poor and hit harder by the downturn.

Alternative Houses has won support from Congressmen from both parties -- "nobody wants to see homeless kids whether you are a Democrat or a Republican," said Dittman.

But the federal budget cuts, she has just learned, will not wait until next year -- they are expected to hit in the coming months.

"We need more staff, training, supervision and counseling. And a building in Fairfax County is not cheap to run," said Dittman, who runs a staff of 27.

The RHYA currently is funded with $115 million from Congress, an amount that has not changed in recent years despite growing need according to the policy group NN4Y. Some 35,000 youths were turned away from shelters since 2009. Only 5 percent of those in need are getting it in shelters funded by the federal law.

The tension of family problems remains the driving force in many the the youths who end up at Alternative House. "A pregnant girl gets thrown out and is sleeping in a Laundromat," said one staff member. "In some cases a step dad is sexually abusing a girl. We have hundreds of stories like that. We can give them a safe haven, a way to thrive."

"We try to break the cycle of poverty. There is no greater prediction of lifetime poverty than single motherhood. Some kids are the first in their family to graduate high school. Some kids did not even have a bed of their own."

The shelter had provided safe places for after school safety -- places where they do their homework without the blaring television and family fighting at home. Other kids are "couch surfing" - staying each night at another friend's house.

Some graduates from the program have written back years later, calling it a God-send that saved them from the streets and from failure. Many have gone on to college and hold good jobs. One wrote "there was no one here to help me" until police brought him to Alternative House.

"Alternative House saved my life," said another.