Homeless youth are not a problem, they are our future

11/17/2016 01:07 pm ET Updated Nov 18, 2017

I am honored to be a L'Oréal Paris Women of Worth, recognized for making an extraordinary difference in my community. As a recipient, my organization, Build Futures has been awarded $10,000!

Youth homelessness is a rising issue across the country, yet I have found these youth have enormous potential and the cost of allowing them to become and stay homeless is high. These are the youth that can meet the rising demand companies have for skilled workers when given housing and training and become contributing members of our country.

I founded Build Futures to get homeless youth off the streets quickly, not only finding them permanent housing, but helping them become self-sufficient - the goal is within 90 days - by providing mentoring, schooling and the services, resources and support needed to obtain and maintain employment and long-term independence.

There are only 4,000 youth shelter beds in the US, yet as many as 500,000 unaccompanied youth experience homelessness each year. In California, 76% of the homeless youth are unsheltered (Data Source PIT 2015). A recent research report done by Cal State Long Beach revealed one in ten Cal State students are homeless.

There is only one bed for every 125 youth without a home in the US.

Runaway and homeless youth flee sexual, physical and emotional abuse, conflict, neglect, or, increasingly, poverty or homelessness in their families. On the street, sex and labor trafficking, dangers of street life and rising drug problems in the country, make it critical youth get off the street swiftly. To do that requires more emergency beds and rapid rehousing.

The youth arrive hungry, scared and desperate -after housing, we coordinate with existing social services and agencies to get them clothing, food, IDs, bus passes, job-hunting assistance, help with schooling, medical care, and mental health treatment.
Technically, the young people helped by Build Futures are adults, but they often lack the life skills and experience to transition into self-sufficiency.

Last year, Build Futures assisted 255 young people, subsidizing housing for 108 of them. So far this year, 86 have been provided housing. Build Futures has helped over 1,000 homeless youth. The average cost for housing, resources and other services is less than $2,000 to transform a life. Of those who participated in the program, 75 percent became self-sufficient; those who drop out can come back. They just need a hand up. They just need that first break.

Michelle Harding, 18, found Build Futures by scouring the internet. She'd been seeking the courage to leave a dysfunctional home and abusive father. She was emailed a response that same day. She was housed within 24 hours. Build Futures was very proactive. She was told to sign up for different programs, including food stamps and medical insurance. Every week, she received emails to job openings.

Harding now works two jobs and has been accepted to the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she plans to major in computer science. Without our help, Harding said she would have remained too stressed out to pursue college or anything beyond a minimum-wage job.

Build Futures knows the problem of young homeless adults isn't limited to Orange County, so I have developed a 21-step plan that can be used to start similar programs across the country. Build Futures' model can be replicated nationally. This program model is unique and innovative.

At Build Futures we have seen that with our model, we can take every youth off the street who comes to us who is willing and able to work and transform their life, no wait lists. This is done at a very small cost, less than $2,000 per youth. These youth are our future; if we do not house them they will become the chronically homeless, criminals, drug dealers, and single mothers on Cash Aid because we have given them no other options and they have lost hope. We just need to commit to housing the homeless youth across the country and connecting them to training and employment. The result is contributing members of our community. We know what to do to end youth homelessness, we just need to do it.

With a fully resourced service delivery system, we would have the ability to provide the housing, safety, resources and services necessary for youth in crisis, and truly prevent and end youth homelessness in America. My hope is that the incoming federal Administration and Congress will make that commitment.