Help Homeless Youth By Counting Them Right

03/23/2017 10:59 am ET Updated Mar 23, 2017

The headlines from last week were dreadful for the homeless youth we serve at Covenant House, the largest charity in the hemisphere working with homeless, trafficked and vulnerable youth in 30 cities in the United States, Canada and four countries in Latin America.

There was news of a study, released by the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness , showing that

  • Over 40 percent of homeless teens struggle with depression, a rate 12 percentage points higher than their housed peers (29 percent).
  • Homeless teens consider suicide more often and are three times more likely to attempt suicide than housed teens (20 percent to 6 percent).
  • Nearly one in four homeless teens have been forced into unwanted sexual activity by someone they are dating, three times higher than the rate for housed teens (23 percent to 8 percent).
  • Homeless teens are three times more likely than their housed peers to have been deliberately hurt by someone they are dating (25 percent to 8 percent).
  • Homeless teens have a much greater risk of pregnancy than their housed peers (9 percent to 1 percent).

The study took place in New York City, where, in the last five years, one eighth of all public school students have been homeless at some point.

Then there was news of the aftermath of a lethal fire in a youth shelter in Guatemala, where at least 40 girls died. Officials in charge of the shelter were fired, some charged with homicide, but it was too late to save the children. There were reports that some of the shelter doors were locked, unable to be opened from inside. Four of the victims were young women we knew through our Covenant House in Guatemala City (which we call La Alianza), and our hearts are breaking for them and for the rest of the victims.

Finally, there was news from Philadelphia, where a 14-year-old girl who found herself homeless was held captive as a sex slave for two years. The good news here is a new weapon, the 2014 Pennsylvania Human Trafficking Law, which allows victims to sue motels or hotels for profiting from their exploitation. Careful enforcement of this law could provide trafficking victims with a number of important allies: hotel managers, clerks, and cleaning people who, at the risk of being sued, are obligated to report suspicious trafficking-related activities, like a string of short-term visitors to a room, or an underage female with an older male who is not a relative. Motels and hotels are the most common place for reports of suspected trafficking to originate, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

The vulnerability of homeless youth, which we heard about over and over ago last week, makes it even more crucial that a new proposed piece of federal legislation become law in the United States. Thanks to co-sponsors Senators Rob Portman (R-OH) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the Homeless Children and Youth Act applies uniform definitions of homelessness to young people across all federal agencies. Currently, the Department of Housing and Urban Development does not recognize as homeless those young people who are living in hotels or motels or doubled up with friends. The bill would make it easier for such young people to get housing and other crucial services. We are grateful to Congressmen Steve Stivers (R-OH) and Dave Loebsack (D-IA) for introducing similar legislation in the House of Representatives.

We have seen, through a week’s brutal headlines, how children and young people need safe places to stay, to keep them safe from trafficking, depression, fires, teen pregnancy, and other perils. Please join me in supporting the Homeless Children and Youth Act, to keep our children safe. It is so much more humane, and cost-effective, to take care of young people before they are homeless, desperate and exploited.

And it is simply the right thing to do.

Please show your support for this bill by signing our petition to U.S. Senators here.

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