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Homeless Youth: Are We Looking Hard Enough for the Keys to Open More Doors?

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Why are there street people when there are church steeples only a block away?

This has stuck with me since the first time I heard it in a song written by a close friend, Jerry Mills, many years ago. A simple question that changed my perspective on community and opened my eyes to how frequently you'll find a street person and a church steeple within blocks of one another. For how long, and more importantly, why did we start locking the doors of our churches, temples and places of worship? I can't speak for all faiths, but I know the one I practice often talks about opening our hearts, our hands and our souls to those in need. So why do we lock the one place built for practicing love -- the one thing that unites us in community? Are street people not our community? Are churches the only ones that are locked, or have we also locked our personal doors, both physically and spiritually, to many people?

My phone rang at 11 p.m. two nights ago, and I picked up to hear the voice of one of our students who was calling to find out whether I was able to find any blankets for him yet. I let him know I would have them tomorrow and asked to find out how many he needed. Eight was the reply from this 20-year-old boy who is recently homeless after getting into a bad fight with a sister that caused his mother to, in his words, "put him out." (Sounds like something you might do to a dog for a few hours, not a young man.) I tried to go back to bed that night but couldn't stop wondering why. Eight young adults did not have blankets to get through the night.

At Curt's Café in Evanston, IL, we teach at-risk young adults ages 15 to 24 the skills they need, and then place them in jobs where our mentoring continues. This summer we had nine students. Six were homeless. All of them young men with no place to lay their heads, little education, no jobs and no money. Through the program, we're able to provide each student with two meals a day and eight hours of training. It's not always easy to survive 16 hours on the street each day.

Some were probably out running drugs after they left each night because our gang members are clearly the ones opening their doors and keeping them safe and warm at night. Yes, we have an adult homeless shelter and a few programs for homeless young adults. However the adult shelter isn't a comfortable place for them to go ("it's all adult meth heads") and the ones specifically for young adults all have waiting lists. So what do they do at night when it's 32 degrees outside? Where do they go if they can't afford a bus pass to run the rails all night and stay warm? Are these kids, the ones trying to start their lives again at a place like Curt's Café, the ones many of us cross the street to get away when we see them walking towards us because we "know" they're bad kids just selling dope? Do we ever stop to look them in the eye and ask how their day is going, or do we lock them out like the churches have because they might steal something from us? If we and the churches continue to close them out, then who will help for the 16 hours that programming isn't available?

Within one hour of receiving our student's call, the boy had received all eight blankets thanks to the incredible volunteers at Curt's Café who dedicate their time and resources to serving these hopeful youth. And at 6:30 a.m., I received a text from him: "Thanks for everything."

Are we looking hard enough for the keys to open more doors?

This post is part of a series co-produced by The Huffington Post and L'Oréal Paris to celebrate the Women of Worth program, honoring women making a beautiful difference in the world. The ten 2013 Women of Worth honorees are pursuing their passions to accomplish the extraordinary through philanthropic efforts in their communities. Bound by a deep sense of purpose and appetite for change, these women were chosen from thousands of applicants, and each received $10,000 for her charitable cause from L'Oréal Paris. To learn more about Women of Worth or to submit a nomination beginning Spring 2014, please visit womenofworth.com.