Elusive and Unsettling: Child and Youth Homelessness in America

05/26/2015 12:57 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2016

Photo: Francisco GuzmanChild and youth homelessness is a complicated puzzle, one that many towns and cities around the country are still struggling to solve.

Part of the problem: What makes child and youth homelessness different from the adult phenomenon is itself an elusive quality.

Although the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has included underage youth in its annual Point-In-Time study in the last two years, the number counted remains inaccurately low, pointing to trends in the population that will require new and innovative engagement techniques. It is clear that children and youth simply do not come forth for services, tend to stay "doubled up," and often choose to hide in plain sight, trying hard to blend with other young people in order to avoid being identified.

This is due to a number of factors, including trauma issues and the system's traditional response: turning underage youth over to the foster care system. Some advocates feel that this is precisely where the young people do not want to go, leading them to shy away from programs and what they have to offer.

Youth and children on the street are also exposed to exploitation. "Doubled up" situations can mean trading sex for a place to stay. Some fall into trafficking and prostitution. Among them, LGBTQ youth seem to be at a higher level of risk for this, according to some studies.

For D.C. residents, this is not some abstract concept. Groups helping children and young adults point to illegal activity in suburban motels right here in DMV. This activity is not exclusive to this area. It is actually a "hidden norm" in many rural and urban settings throughout the country.

Some estimates put the youth and child homeless population in the U.S. at 550,000. A higher number of young people, approximately 1.3 million, leave home, but most return quickly.

For the half-million who stay disconnected, resources are scarce. The overall system serves about 50,000 of them, putting the participant-to-resource ratio at 11:1.

When we consider that figures in homeless data are always very conservative, we know the ratio is much worse still.

What we are really looking at is a system that is grossly underequipped to meet the actual demand.

This is a very serious issue given the high level of vulnerability inherent to the population.

While the primary intervention in the field remains family reunification, this is not always possible or even desirable, and the lack of adequate shelter and living constitutes a significant barrier.

The elephant in the room is our conspicuous reluctance as a society to develop adequate service systems for homeless youth and children. Is the thought of the young people on the street so unsettling and counter to our values that we simply choose to look the other way? Is the reality of trafficking and exploitation so hard to face? Or is the refusal of some families to raise and love their own LGBTQ children more than some of us can comprehend?

I don't have good answers to these questions, but I'm thinking the issue has been gnawing at us long enough that it's time we put it in the forefront and do something about it.

Advocates and philanthropists from around the country are ready to help. This gives us an unprecedented opportunity to develop a common vision that will bring the system of homeless services for underage youth and young adults to par with the adult system.

Most American cities have small (and underfunded) programs for children and young adults that have developed their own best practices to bring youth out of homelessness. These pockets of excellence can help us in our work to bring the system to scale.

There is urgency in this. Acting now means that a whole generation of disconnected young people will leave hardship behind and find ways to grow into adults with dreams and aspirations.

Our responsibility is to make this happen now. As a country, we need to stop looking the other way and pretending we don't know some of our children live alone on the street.