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Homeless Girls Face Violence and Illness

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The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless website reminds the reader that the majority of people living in poverty are women. And despite the fact that "there has never been a single year on record when women living in poverty did not outnumber their male counterparts," the stereotypical homeless person is still some old guy living under a bridge. The same economic disparity holds true for families headed by women. Exponentially more poor families have just a mom as the head of the household. Consequently there are more families and children live on the street than there are old hobos.

This week the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania had its annual "Homes Within Reach" conference in Harrisburg. More than 500 housing providers, shelter directors, caseworkers and their business allies met to discuss the ever-growing problem of housing shortages and the myriad challenges that accompany this third world phenomena in the heart of first world America.

Diane Nilan -- founder and president of Hear Us, a nonprofit that helps homeless kids and their families -- was parked in her RV outside the Harrisburg Hilton waiting for me. I had been a presenter at the event and we were leaving from there to go on our newest journey around the United States. Periodically we join forces to spread the word about the homeless pandemic infecting every region of the U.S.

As I stepped into the passenger side of the vehicle, Elena approached me and asked if I knew where she could get some blankets.

The RV Nilan drives is plastered with pictures of homeless children. Nilan hoped littering her vehicle with pictures of innocents would encourage dialogue and shift regional, state and national spending priorities. But what it really does is let homeless folks know that she's someone who is trying to help.

I asked Elena if she'd gone to the YWCA. I'd worked with them before and they are one of the finest advocacy groups and service providers in the key stone state. Elena had gone there already. The Y -- as always -- was full.

Not knowing what else to recommend, I asked the bundled-up young woman if she would come inside with me. I brought her into the Hilton. It was very warm inside -- outside the temperature had already dipped to 33 degrees -- Elena unwrapped her scarf and revealed a slender, very pretty young face.

We walked into the ballroom where the conference attendees were preparing for dinner and I found Joyce Sacco. Sacco used to run an inner-city men's shelter in Philly and is now a full-time advocate with the Housing Alliance. Sacco invited Elena to stay for dinner while she tried to locate Harrisburg area folks who might be able to help. Elena -- no doubt feeling out of place -- tried to beg off, but we convinced her to stay and eat.

I can't imagine bringing a homeless person into any other conference and having her greeted with a warm smile not to mention a warm meal. Of course, that might be my prejudice as it has been shaped in a political climate of food stamp cuts and sequesters.

Sadly, before a solution could be found for Elena, she left the conference and went back out to the street. The short-term prospects for a mid-twenties pretty woman on the street are bleak. Her odds of sexual assault and/or other violent victimization are much higher than they would be if she had a home. The cold, poor nutrition, and other less than favorable realities of homelessness will diminish her health and without abatement, shorten her life span.

When Elena left, Sacco went looking for her. Sacco went back the next day and looked for her again but had no luck finding her. The folks in Harrisburg are on the lookout for her too, but for now -- with the rapid rise in poverty and without increased funding for human necessities -- Elena will likely fall through the cracks along with hundreds of thousands of other women just like her.

While Congress and state houses around the nation continue cutting public assistance, and while poverty continues to rise, Nilan and I are traveling the north east on another of our journeys hoping to spread the word that millions of children, moms, dads, single persons, and veterans are living in our city streets and hiding in our rural countryside.

Our current trip, our "Frost Bites" tour, brings us through New England up to the Canadian border. It doesn't take too many nights sleeping outside with winter approaching to know that no one with healthy options would choose to be homeless. And no nation with a health social contract would allow it.