10/03/2014 11:38 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Homeless Kids Need This Stronger Law


Here are some maddening figures to chew on: according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, about 550,000 unaccompanied youth spend more than a week homeless each year, yet fewer than 10 percent are served by homeless youth programs, and there are only 4,800 beds funded by the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act available at any given time.

We can do better than that, can't we?

You can help, right now, right from your computer. The Runaway and Homeless Youth and Trafficking Prevention Act needs co-sponsors to smooth its passage through the Senate. Last month it passed through the Senate Judiciary Committee, but for it to continue onwards successfully, we need as many sponsors as possible, from both sides of the aisle, between now and early November.

The bill, introduced by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) has 14 co-sponsors: Senators Richard Blumenthal (CT), Barbara Boxer (CA), Sherrod Brown (OH), Christopher Coons (DE), Richard Durbin (IL), Al Franken (MN), Kirsten Gillibrand (NY), Mazie Hirono (HI), Angus King (ME), Carl Levin (MI), Christopher Murphy (CT), Patty Murray (WA), Charles Schumer (NY), and Sheldon Whitehouse (RI). If your senator's name isn't on this list, please urge him or her to co-sponsor the bill by delivering a message through this link, via the National Network for Youth.

The 40-year-old Runaway and Homeless Youth Act, in its updated version, provides for temporary housing, street outreach, family reunification, crisis intervention, counseling, and transitional living programs, including help with schooling and employment, and enhanced services for victims of human trafficking -- homeless young people are particularly vulnerable to such sexual exploitation.

The reauthorization of the bill will provide a safety net for thousands of homeless and trafficked youth across the nation each year. We need Congress to lead the movement for our youth, building for them a bridge from homelessness to hope, from despair to opportunity.

The National Network for Youth, our partners in advocacy for homeless kids, puts it this way:
"This vital federal legislation needs to be updated and reauthorized to enable communities and providers to continue to care for our young people. We hope that Congress will continue to move this legislation through both the Senate and the House."

Federal Department of Education figures from last month increase our sense of urgency about the need to help homeless youth - their numbers are growing at an alarming rate, with a record 1.25 million homeless young people enrolled in public school in 2012-13, up 8 percent from the previous year. In a sampling of states where Covenant House has shelters across the United States, those increases hit hard - Florida was up 10 percent, New York up 36 percent, and New Jersey up a whopping 77 percent (believed to be due to Hurricane Sandy).

Last month I joined five homeless young people to deliver more than 50,000 petitions from Covenant House friends across the country to urge the Senate to pass anti-trafficking bills. (The picture above shows us with Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, a great advocate for young people.)

We are overjoyed that President Obama signed the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act, which gives young people in foster care new protections from human trafficking. It simply makes sense to extend similar help to vulnerable unaccompanied homeless youth, those without family, or foster homes, or child welfare caseworkers to look out for them. Unaccompanied youth need help right now, before they fall into long-term homelessness, or get sick, exploited, mentally ill, or worse, on the streets.

Please join me today in urging your senators to co-sponsor the reauthorization of the Runaway and Homeless Youth bill for homeless kids. Together we can be the movement for change our most vulnerable kids need and deserve.