03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

YouthBuild: Homes For The Homeless

Over the Christmas holiday, a friend and I were walking around Toronto. As we turned into one of the city's famed back lanes, lined on each side with garages, I recalled a story I once heard. Mary Jo Leddy, a social activist and author, was billeting a family of refugees. One of the children noticed a neighbour's garage and asked about it. Leddy reports that she had difficulty explaining to this homeless child that this was, in fact, a house for cars.

Which is why I was delighted to cross paths with a New Radical who is doing something incredibly creative about the housing shortage (New Radicals are people who put the skills acquired in their careers to work on the world's greatest challenges - for more, please see linked articles).

Dorothy Stoneman is founder and president of YouthBuild USA. In YouthBuild programs, low-income young people work toward their GED or high-school diploma while learning job skills by building affordable housing for homeless and low-income people. (I know! I went, wow, that's a complete loop!) These young men and women spend six months to two years in the program, dividing their time between construction and the YouthBuild Alternative School. Check out this video, produced by the Skoll Foundation, about how YouthBuild is breaking the cycle of poverty for those in the program - as well as those who move into their new homes.

YouthBuild sounds like an idea whose time has come, right? In fact, Dorothy is a pioneer in this work - she's been at it since the 1960s. She worked in Harlem when the civil rights movement as starting to heat up. "I decided it was everyone's obligation to go as far out into the frontlines to end injustice as their personal characteristics would allow them to. I wanted to help create pre-schools that would break the cycle of poverty for low-income families."

Dorothy loved Harlem, where she met and married fellow teacher John Bell (he's now YouthBuild's VP for Leadership Development); they raised their family there. And one day she hit on the idea of YouthBuild. It was the 1970s, a tough period for New York City. "There was obvious need: 300 abandoned buildings, thousands of unemployed young men standing on street corners, homeless people everywhere you looked. I thought, 'Somebody should rebuild these buildings to create homes for people.' I put it to a group of youth, 'What would you do if you had the resources to make changes in your community?' And they said they would rebuild the buildings and create homes for people. So that's what we did. We picked out some buildings, went downtown to figure out who owned them, went out and raised money and started fixing them up."

In 2009, YouthBuild reached a kind of tipping point. "Federal funding for YouthBuild has doubled, we now have 273 locations across the country with 10,000 young men and women building affordable housing and getting an education. And we're now working in 11 countries, from Israel to Haiti, Mexico to South Africa. There are an estimated 600 million unemployed young people around the world - if we don't figure out how to engage these young men and women, we're going to be in trouble." (Their work was given a big leg up when Dorothy won a prestigious Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship.)

When we chatted, I asked Dorothy how HuffPo readers can help. "We've started doing house parties. People host a party in their home, and invite their friends, neighbours, colleagues. We come along with some YouthBuild graduates, we show a video, and we all have a great conversation. And then guests can contribute if they want to." Every dollar we donate, Dorothy told me, leverages $400 of public funds, which goes straight to local programs and low-income communities. (Contact your local YouthBuild organization for details.)

I mentioned to Dorothy that when I was speaking in Seattle recently, a middle-aged man came up to me and said that he'd been asked to help support baby elephants in Africa. He said he thought about it for a while, and then started to notice the people sleeping on the street outside his building. "I love baby elephants as much as the next guy," he said. "But I decided I should be doing something about these homeless people first." Dorothy jumped on this comment. "You know, young people are dying in our cities - they're being shot and killing each other, and it's a totally solvable problem that we ignore. What I discovered when I worked in Harlem - and what I've seen with YouthBuild over and over again - is that these young people are filled with talent and passion and potential. The states are spending billions of dollars each year locking people up when these kids could be rebuilding their communities and changing their lives."

New Jersey gets it. Attorney General Anne Milgram recently announced the investment of $6.25 million in state and federal funding in crime prevention programs that will support education and job training in at least four of the state's cities - Newark, Camden, Trenton, and Paterson. The YouthBuild program in Newark is one of four YouthBuild organizations in the state that will receive a total of $2,580,000 in state funding over the next three years. "We are providing the resources necessary to help young people who are living at risk to gangs and violence in their communities, and who want the chance to succeed," Milgram said. "The alternative is to not support these efforts and pay for the costs associated with prison, emergency health care, public assistance, and much more."

In a delightful moment of synchronicity, yesterday's mail produced a review copy of The Creative City, by Charles Landry. Subtitled "A Toolkit for Urban Innovators", it shows how new modes of thinking can help regenerate cities - where more than 50% of us now live.

Now it's your turn. Are you homeless? Do you know someone who lost their home - perhaps recently? What's going on in your neighbourhood or city to help solve this problem? And what are you doing/do you want to do about the most pressing issues of our day? Please comment below. As always, I invite you to email me: Julia (that familiar symbol) wearethenewradicals (DOT) (familiar suffix).

Finally, are you eager to hear Arianna Huffington speak? If you're in Toronto on January 26th, there are still a few tickets available for her talk (in my town!) on "The Brave New World of New Media".
Event: Tuesday, January 26
Venue: RCM TELUS Centre for Performance and Learning
Time: 4:00 p.m. - 5:00 p.m.

Julia Moulden is on tour talking about the New Radicals.