03/29/2012 01:09 pm ET Updated May 29, 2012

Take Action to Help Homeless Kids Now

When is a homeless child not a homeless child? Lawmakers, Covenant House, the online human rights community, and other advocates for vulnerable young people are trying to make the fairest definition of homelessness part of the law of the land. We need your help.

Right now, if you are a kid staying with your parents in a motel, or doubled up with friends or relatives, programs run by the Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, and Justice rightly consider you homeless. But the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the federal agency that serves homeless people, doesn't.

The Homeless Children and Youth Act, HR 32, would amend the HUD definition of homelessness to include many homeless youth and families who are eligible for assistance under four federal programs or laws: Head Start, the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act, the McKinney-Vento act governing education, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The bill would allow more kids and their families to get more services they are entitled to, like transitional housing, permanent supportive housing, and, potentially, mental health and substance abuse treatment.

After all, doubled-up situations and motels can be dangerous for children, who need structure and routine. Families can't reliably get mail or after school care in such tenuous living situations. Yet they're better than the alternative. Often, families with children stay in motels or with friends because they know shelters would split them up, or there are no family or youth shelters available, and living on the streets or in cars may lead to losing your kids to the child welfare system.

It's particularly unfair that HUD requires people to provide documentation of multiple moves and long periods of homelessness, which many transient people are unable to do. Young people find it particularly hard to collect the kind of documents the department requires.

As Brittany K., a homeless girl from Ohio, put it, "I feel that making youth document their homelessness through the people they couch surf with will only create another barrier and more frustration with the system. None of the people I lived with would have been willing to document that I was living there. They would have been suspicious and afraid of getting in trouble. Also, many of them I didn't know well enough to ask them." Sadly, she probably did not know them well enough to live with them safely, either.

So many of the 56,000 homeless, runaway and trafficked children that we serve at Covenant House shelters and outreach programs each year have spent nights doubled up with friends, or acquaintances, or scraping together enough money for a cheap motel. But they don't count as homeless in HUD's eyes.

If homeless children don't have a permanent place to stay, shouldn't they be able to get the help designated for them, without having to prove their status, or wallow in red tape while missing out on a childhood? Other Federal agencies understand that.

Can you please help young people like Brittany, and their families, by clicking here. We are also asking that you to write to your Congressional representative, which is simple to do by putting your zip code on the form here. The letter there for you to sign urges him or her to co-sponsor HR 32, and if possible support it in the Financial Services Committee, where it currently resides.

Please help us to make it so that young children don't have to suffer on a technicality. It's bad enough that they often feel defined by their homelessness. The government needs to use a consistent definition of their needs in order to meet those needs better.