11/19/2013 06:04 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Take Action Today for Homeless Kids

Once in a while, an opportunity comes along for everyone to take an action to save a life. And it won't hurt a bit. You don't even have to step away from your screen. And I'm asking you to do it Wednesday.

The Runaway and Homeless Youth Act has expired, and it is up to every one of us to work to convince our legislators in Congress that we can't stem the tide of youth homelessness and human trafficking unless the law is funded to meet the needs of vulnerable kids across the United States. For four decades, the law has supported a safety net for discarded and abandoned young people, one that includes street outreach, shelter, education, job training, health care, and transitional living programs. The sad reality is that investment in this vital safety net has dwindled over time, and millions of dollars have been slashed, affecting tens of thousands of kids.

The National Network for Youth, our friends in the movement to end youth homelessness, is holding a virtual, nation-wide lobbying day in support of homeless youth. The Network is making it very easy for us all to join in. They've written the letters we're asking you to send. They've created a guide for how to find and call your legislators, and what to tell their aides. One or two calls to the right person can help persuade a member of Congress that homeless kids need their concern, and their vote. They've also produced a fact sheet about the needs of kids on the streets.

Since 2008, 45,674 homeless young people have been turned away from homeless youth programs because of a lack of funding. More than 45,000 times, we as a nation have told a kid that they aren't worth sleeping inside, and they should try their luck on a park bench or subway seat instead. That deeply saddens me, especially knowing that 5,000 homeless kids die each year, often anonymously on a sidewalk, in an alley or a micro-brothel.

Many young lives could be saved by increasing funding to the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act, but that requires political will and our mobilization.

Part of the reauthorization bill before Congress includes $3 million to study youth homelessness. While I usually shudder at the delays caused by blue-ribbon panels brought in to study (rather than solve) a problem, for once this is a crucial step, one that was supposed to be taken back in 2008. If we do not know the true numbers of homeless young people -- and we don't, in part because kids try so hard to remain invisible, because that is safer for them, and because they are ashamed -- we can't help them adequately.

This is especially true for victims of human trafficking, a subpopulation of homeless kids who need our most careful focus. Their needs are many - for safe shelter, for physical and mental health care, for education and job training, so they can escape the modern-day slavers who have exploited them, and who so often fight desperately hard to take them back.

It is extremely hard to count victims and survivors of human trafficking. They don't come up to our outreach vans or intake workers and announce that they have been pimped out. Often, they won't tell us until they've known us for weeks or months, and trust us enough to share their shame.

Until recently, many of the workers at our shelters believed that we were working with very few victims or survivors of human trafficking. But last May, we joined with Fordham University to study the prevalence of trafficking victims among our kids and we learned that almost a quarter of the kids in our New York City shelter either met the federal definition of a trafficking victim (someone trafficked under age 18, or trafficked via force, fraud, or coercion) or had engaged in survival sex, exchanging sex for something of value, usually shelter or food. That's appallingly high. We know that being homeless dramatically increases your risk of being trafficked, and we know that once you are trafficked, your need for services increases greatly. We urge Congress to get more serious about helping homeless and trafficked kids and reauthorize the RHYA quickly.

The current version of the RHYA includes the requirement that shelters try to count the number of trafficked youth they serve. It will be a start. These numbers will not reflect the full extent of trafficking occurring on our streets, on the internet, and in the seedy motels and microbrothels of our cities and suburbs, but it is a leap forward. As part of our study, we have worked hard to develop a survey tool for use with homeless youth, which is available in the appendix of the study and which other homeless youth advocates, activists and charities can use.

The proposed study will also count the numbers of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender homeless kids, homeless kids who are pregnant or parenting, and those who have been through the foster care system. Each of these figures is crucial for understanding how and why kids become homeless and better enables us to meet the needs of the kids we serve in the smartest and most helpful manner.

In the foreword to Almost Home: Helping Kids Move from Homelessness to Hope, the book I co-authored about six homeless kids, my friend Cory Booker, then Newark New Jersey's mayor, now New Jersey's senator, wrote a wonderful sentence: "What frustrates me is that so often we allow our inability to do the big things to undermine our determination to do the small things, those acts of kindness, decency and love that in their aggregate over days, weeks and years make powerful change."

So what will it be? What small act can you do today to help a kid who's sleeping in the cold tonight? A phone call? An email? Printing out and signing a pre-written letter?

Powerful change is coming. Please become part of it.