THE BLOG
12/12/2014 11:40 am ET Updated Feb 11, 2015

Why You Should Curb Your Instinct to Judge Homeless Youth

I will probably say "stay warm" hundreds of times this winter season, but I don't need to walk very far to run into those for whom staying warm is impossible, because they call the streets home. In New York City, over 1,750 youth will sleep on the streets on any given night this winter.

I know you've seen teenagers or very young adults sitting on the curb, stiff frozen fingers holding a cardboard sign with the words "Homeless, please give food or money." Then there are the homeless youth you don't notice: those who couch surf or look like any other kid at McDonald's or the Apple Store.

When you come across a homeless young person in need of help you are faced with two choices: you give what you can or you give nothing at all.

When faced with homelessness we often look for ways to justify our inaction. Why should I help them? I work too hard to earn money. I won't just give it away. Why can't she just get a job? I've been working since I was 15 years old. Everyone knows he's just going to use the money for drugs.

Yet the most important question that too few of us ask is the most obvious one: Why is this young person homeless?

At Safe Horizon's Streetwork Project we help over a thousand homeless youth every year whose stories affirm why we should not judge them, but rather the people and systems that failed them.

As a young child, Mike (not his real name) was abused and raped by a family member. After years enduring the abuse he told his parents, hoping the violence would end. They didn't believe him. Later, as a teenager, he told his parents he was gay. They didn't accept him. He was kicked out of his home. He was alone, scared and betrayed by the adults he had trusted.

Mike joined the thousands of youth who call the New York City streets home every year.

When you see a homeless young person like Mike on the street, you don't see the trauma he has suffered after years of physical, sexual and emotional abuse.

You don't see how many young people like him fall prey to pimps or traffickers, often trading sex for food, money or even a warm place to spend the night, because they have no other way to eat.

You don't see that drinking or using drugs may be the only coping mechanism available to help temporarily erase the horrors of their past, the bleakness of their present, and the hopelessness they feel when thinking of the future.

You don't see that the teenager on the corner with a cardboard box was kicked out of his or her home for being gay, lesbian or transgender. In fact, 20 percent of homeless youth in America are LGBTQ.

You don't see that some homeless youth come from homeless families and have never had a stable home.

And you are probably unaware that 70 percent of homeless youth have fled violent homes, making the reality of trauma all too common.

That is the reality that most of us just don't see.

PHOTO GALLERY
5 Simple Things That Improve the Daily Lives of Homeless Youth

Giving homeless youth the opportunity to start healing is the greatest promise to getting off the streets. This is what organizations like Safe Horizon do to help. After immediate needs such as food and a warm place to stay are met, homeless youth need medical attention, counseling to improve their safety, stable housing and, ultimately, therapy that will heal the trauma.

You may wonder what became of Mike. Our counselors recognized that he was struggling with serious mental illness and depression. He was also diagnosed with HIV. We advocated for Mike to receive critical medication and provided the counseling he desperately needed in a safe environment. The turning point for Mike came when we were successful in helping him find an apartment, where he can live safely and with dignity.

It's unconscionable that anyone in the United States - especially a young person -- should have to sleep on the street. For a kid to be homeless, the people or systems designed to protect them failed. It is not their fault, and they deserve our respect and our help. The next time you see a homeless youth -- whether you give them a dollar or not -- please know that we all need to help young people get off the streets and onto the path to healing.