11/13/2012 07:43 pm ET Updated Jan 13, 2013

Sleeping on the Streets to End Teen Homelessness

They say you don't really know someone until you've walked in their shoes. I say you don't really know them until you've slept on their streets.

There are few places where this is more pressing than in our nation's capital. According to the latest numbers, the poverty rate for children and young people in D.C. is one of the highest in the nation, at 30 percent.

To that end, on Nov. 15, I will be among 20 business executives who have chosen to spend a night sleeping out on the streets of the city in solidarity with homeless teens, and to publicly address the chronic issue of youth homelessness in the nation's capital.

This Sleep Out: Executive Edition, facilitated by Covenant House Washington, the organization which I am proud to lead, has a simple mission: to give donors the chance to experience firsthand what they're seeking to prevent.

But, we're certainly not alone in the effort. That same night, executives in fourteen other cities across the United States and Canada will do the same, in an effort to elevate the conversation about homelessness and break down barriers in the process.

While one night on the street hardly compares to what homeless kids go through each and every day, we know from experience that just one night leaves a lasting impact on those unaccustomed to the discomfort of sleeping on the streets. It's not just about writing a check. It's about truly experiencing and understanding what it feels like to be homeless, so that we can do something about it.

My desire to "do something" about homelessness came rather unexpectedly. I grew up in a middle-class family, instilled with a sense of duty to my country, to service and to order -- a way of life that couldn't be farther removed from the chaotic, painful experiences of those on the streets. Like my brothers, I became a Marine and, after commanding a tank unit for two years in the mid-1980s, I settled into an administration position and a comfortable life in Brooklyn, recruiting college students for Marine Corps officer programs post-graduation. On the side, I volunteered a few hours a week with Covenant House New York.

One cold February night in the late 1980s, after walking a few blocks from Times Square to my volunteer shift at Covenant House New York, I walked into the lobby to find a young woman crying. She was homeless, terrified and had nowhere left to turn -- and couldn't have been more than 14 years old. She'd never sought help or shelter before-- she'd never been homeless before. But she was lost. And the look on her face -- the utter fear and despair -- hit me hard. I could tell she was at her saddest, most vulnerable moment.

In that moment, I knew my life had changed. When I returned home that night, I told my wife I wanted to devote the rest of my life to helping homeless kids turn their lives around. Nine months later, I was hired on as a full-time resident adviser at Covenant House New York, where I spent four years caring for homeless kids. For the next 15 years, I served homeless, abused and neglected young people throughout the country before relocating to Washington, D.C. in 2009 to take on the position of executive director at Covenant House Washington.

Over the last three years, I've been truly inspired by the people I've met through Covenant House Washington -- the staff, the volunteers, our donors, and most importantly, those we serve. The young people we work with are on the brink of adulthood -- ranging between 18-24 years of age -- but they are really still "kids" in so many ways.

Among the more than 2,000 young people we take in every year are young people suffering from mental illness, from sexual and physical abuse, or are just simply given up on and thrown away. Despite their varied backgrounds, these young people all have one thing in common: They're taking the first step toward bettering their lives, by coming to us and asking for help.

It's our duty, as a community, to help and respond to suffering young people on the streets. If we don't, they will never stand a chance. But, if we as business and community leaders take the time to understand where they are coming from -- figuratively and literally, by sleeping on their streets -- we'll take the first small but important step toward ending the scourge of homelessness.

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