America is home to 1.3 million homeless children. In fact, children make up the fastest growing segment of the homeless population, many of them looking to escape from an abusive or dysfunctional home.
The numbers are fairly staggering, and in a country where there's an overwhelming emphasis on one's bootstraps, there can be a tendency to ignore this problem, to attribute it to poor decision-making and a lack of personal responsibility. One can only ignore if it's not seen first-hand. As Alison Hurst will tell you, taking a walk on Venice Beach on a weekday night eliminates that veil.
Hurst is the Venice Outreach Director of StandUp For Kids, an organization that works to provide relief and aid to homeless youth. Hurst told me devastating stories about the young people she's met who live in fear and confusion on the streets of Los Angeles. One 21-year-old, whom she's spoken to several times, was kicked out of his home at age 12 by an abusive father, and struggles with a spinal injury that keeps him in pain 24 hours a day. Another girl escaped an abusive family as a teenager and has lived as a prostitute for years. She's currently in prison and pregnant with her third child.
StandUp For Kids has given young people like this over one million meals and 100,000 counseling sessions since 1990. These kind of organizations take over where our child support services and public school systems fail. Congresswoman Diane Watson (D-CA) told me at a Causecast-sponsored benefit for StandUp For Kids that she became an advocate for homeless youth back when she was a teacher in Hollywood. She recalled discovering that a 12-year-old girl had been living in the school bathroom. Others questioned her decision to leave home, but Watson attributed her situation to an environment that put her at risk.
"Organizations like StandUp For Kids are essential in our communities," she said. "This program is about our youth. It's about family and bringing us together. Every child needs a parent and I think that's what this does."
Alison Hurst told me that Los Angeles county itself has between 12 and 15,000 homeless youths and only 460 beds in shelters.
"We've just run out of logic for them," Watson said.
With a few weeks left in National Youth Homelessness Awareness Month, now is the perfect time to step up and make a contribution, through time or money, to preventing further child poverty in our communities. Ignoring the issue is not an option.
Thankfully, prominent figures have been telling these stories and bringing the issue of youth homelessness more media attention, slowly but surely. August's Virgin Mobile FreeFest encouraged young people to give 30,000 hours of volunteer service to the cause, and Arianna Huffington wrote about this very issue on The Huffington Post in September.
It's a real issue, and there are many ways you can get involved. Start with StandUp For Kids or Crystal Stairs, another L.A.-based organized recommended by Rep. Watson. Join them and meet some of the young people they support. It's the best way to get started.