05/24/2012 01:48 pm ET Updated Jul 24, 2012

New Report Paints Vivid Picture of Abuse Among Homeless Youth

I look at the figures on my screen, and all I can see is the challenge ahead. Nearly half the young people entering our shelter in Washington, D.C. report having been physically abused, sexually abused, or both. The people they were supposed to trust most in the world caused them physical and psychological harm instead. When kids can't stay at home, they often make the reasonable choice of something potentially safer -- a friend's house, a relative's, even the street. Some come to us, and we try to re-parent them, and give them the love and respect they deserve. Often, we have to reassure them that they aren't broken, they aren't bad, and it's not their fault.

For anyone who thinks homeless young people are to blame for ending up on the streets, I'd urge you to look at this study on my screen, which was released recently. It was conducted by Dr. Linda Plitt Donaldson and Dr. Mary Jeanne Verdieck of the National Catholic School of Social Service at the Catholic University of America, in partnership with the Covenant House Institute and Covenant House Washington.

This report, and our study of kids in our shelters in Alaska, California, Missouri, New Jersey, and New York, paint a vivid picture of the needs of Covenant House kids. Between 30 and 40 percent of them have spent time in foster care. A third of them came to us with health needs. Two thirds of them came to us needing health insurance. About a third had been diagnosed with a mental health disorder. Not one of them signed up for this.

We also found that almost half of the young women at our D.C. shelter -- 46 percent -- reported having been sexually abused, generally multiple times, by a relative, and first between the ages of five and ten. This isn't far off from what we found in our study of five other Covenant House shelters: 38 percent of the residents reported having been physically abused in the past, and 40 percent of the young women reported being sexually abused.

Of those young women in D.C., more than 40 percent had been diagnosed with a mental health disorder, compared to only 16 percent of their non-abused peers. We recommend providing increased and targeted trauma services to sexually abused young women, 85 percent of whom report they were asked to leave their prior residence, where they were usually staying with family or friends. With intervention services that address the emotional and psychological issues associated with untreated trauma, the young women can begin to heal, and avoid some of the dangers that a history of untreated abuse puts them at risk of.

I have spent the last two and a half years working on a book about kids like those who come to Covenant House every day. It's called Almost Home: Helping Kids Move from Homelessness to Hope, and the figures conjure up the faces my co-author Tina Kelley and I have come to love -- of Benjamin, who spent his childhood in more than 30 places -- foster homes, residential treatment centers, group homes, psych wards -- after his mother went to jail for abusing him when he was a toddler. I think of Creionna, who became a mother at 17 and found our homeless shelter more welcoming than her father's home. And Paulie, who got his high school equivalency diploma up here in Alaska, where I recently attended a groundbreaking ceremony for a new shelter with many more beds. These young people, all of whom had abusive families, are thriving now, thanks in part to the unconditional love and respect they received at Covenant House shelters.

In the D.C. report, a couple trends jumped out at me, in part because they showed clear directions our programs need to take. For one, the recession has not been kind to young people. In the two wards of the District of Columbia that send us the most residents, Ward 7 and the one our shelter is located in, Ward 8, the percentage of 16-21-year-olds who were unemployed nearly doubled, to 72 percent from 38 percent. Yikes! (In our five-shelter study, almost 80 percent of our kids were unemployed, almost 60 percent hadn't finished high school or gotten an equivalency diploma.)

There's one step we can help our kids take, to make them more than three times as likely to get hired -- they need a high school diploma or its equivalent, the GED. It's the bare minimum in today's information-based economy. If we can help more of them enroll in school or in GED programs, we can give them better chances in this decidedly grim job market.

As with so many factors leading to youth homelessness, education is often tied to stability -- kids who move frequently have a harder time making it to class consistently, and earning their credentials. In our D.C. study, we learned that for every young person served by a transitional living program, two are turned away. Such programs can offer far more stability than a young person would find bouncing among family members, couch-surfing, or living in shelters or on the street. We need more places for them to call their own and, in a safe and supervised environment, learn the skills needed for living independently.

"We need to meet their immediate needs, and we need more funding for transitional living programs for these young people before they become chronically homeless," said Dan Brannen, executive director of Covenant House Washington.

Federal funding for transitional living programs covers only about four thousand youth a year, just one in seven of those who age out of foster care, and most programs have long waiting lists. Charities such as Covenant House, relying substantially on private donations, strive to fill the gap, but the need is enormous.

In Almost Home, we talk about that need, and also about ways to keep kids safer in their family homes. Being in a family shouldn't hurt. There are services for families at risk of abusing their kids, starting with prenatal nurse visits and continuing throughout childhood: ways child welfare systems can connect families with basic services and counseling, programs that provide wraparound care so children are less likely to be placed in foster care, techniques for finding relatives who can raise a child when his or her birth parent can't, strategies for making sure no child ages out of foster care without a permanent, loving family.

And while the task may seem daunting at first, there are ways we describe in the book for individual readers, strangers really, to rally together to help homeless young people, in large ways and small. No one should have to go through the rites of adolescence from a homeless shelter. Creionna should not have had to go to the prom without a home of her own to return to. Benjamin should've had a roof, and a birthday cake, when he turned 18. Instead, he was left at our shelter.

I'll be writing more about how to help, and about the other four young people we profile in the book. Meanwhile, stay tuned for ideas on how to rally behind homeless young people, in your own city or around the country.