03/13/2013 06:07 pm ET Updated May 13, 2013

The Big Apple, Biggest and Best in... Homelessness?

New York leads the nation with many superlatives: it's the biggest, the artiest and most visited of our cities. Now, it has topped its own unfortunate record, with more homeless people sleeping in shelters each night than ever: more than 50,000 each night, according to a new report released by the Coalition for the Homeless. That includes 21,000 children and represents a 19 percent increase over last year, the largest increase in any U.S. city.

At Covenant House shelters for homeless young people, in New York and 16 other US cities, we see the toughness of the times every day.

For the first time in our history over the last two years, we have sometimes been unable to fit every kid who needs our shelters in Atlanta, Orlando and New York City. There are days we are outmatched by the surge of need from desperate kids. When the beds are full, there is a limit to the number of kids we can accommodate on mats on the floor. We are working day and night to expand our space and staffing to ensure we can take care of every homeless young person who needs our help, but the point is - that need is exploding.

The faltering economy poses many challenges for our kids, particularly in New York and New Jersey, the only two states in the country where the unemployment rates have risen in 2012. For kids who lack a solid education and the support of a loving family, it's increasingly hard to find work, the first rung of the ladder to an independent life.

With budgetary sequestration taking effect, the already difficult circumstances of homeless people are expected to worsen. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated that the new, mandatory cuts to housing programs could put another 125,000 people and families on the verge of homelessness, and 100,000 people staying in emergency shelters might be pushed out to the streets.

Public officials don't always understand how hard it is to live without a permanent address. After backtracking on a comment last month that no one was sleeping on the city's streets, and after an appellate court ruled against the city's policy of requiring proof from homeless people that they had nowhere else to stay, Mayor Bloomberg added another superlative to New York's list. He called it "three to ten times more compassionate" than any other city in the nation, based on what he described as the relatively small percentage of citizens who sleep on the streets. There is no question New York City is a compassionate place, but that observation doesn't in any way minimize the torrent of homelessness that has beset so many young New Yorkers without relief.

It has been an education to watch public leaders across the United States visit with homeless kids, then redouble their commitment to end homelessness or attack some of its root causes. Most recently, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, having spent a cold November night sleeping outside our Covenant House in solidarity with homeless kids, announced two weeks ago a bold effort to eliminate chronic homelessness in the next 18 months. Over the last two years, we've witnessed powerful moments of human connection among homeless young people at Covenant House and their mayors, including Cory Booker in Newark, Vince Gray in Washington, D.C., Michael Nutter in Philadelphia, Mitch Landrieu in New Orleans and Kasim Reed in Atlanta. In each case, the depth of young suffering mobilized public leadership in a positive direction.

It's a great failure of our times that so many young people are facing the physical and psychological dangers of homelessness. Each year 5,000 homeless young people die on the streets, when they don't have to be there in the first place. That statistic may not move us collectively as it might, but it would almost certainly keep us all awake at night if we knew the faces, voices and the hearts of those kids. That's one of the reasons the outreach of mayors to homeless young people in their cities is so welcome.

We know what works to prevent young people from hitting the streets, and what services can direct them into productive lives. At Covenant House, we see the talents and triumphs of young people everyday, as they overcome their circumstances and pursue their dreams. We know that with a clean bed, warm food, fresh clothes and medical care, they can go on to embrace the great promise of their lives: an education, a job and an independent life. Our programs quadruple their chances of being employed, and halves rates of depression.

In our recent national bestseller, Almost Home: Helping Kids Move from Homelessness to Hope, my co-author Tina Kelley and I outline specific ways to fight youth homelessness, by reducing the number of young people who age out of foster care without permanent families, by shoring up families at risk, via visiting nurse programs, counseling and wrap-around services that prevent kids from entering foster care, and by fighting the scourge of human trafficking, which ensnares many vulnerable young people, leaving them with nowhere to go. We know young parents, kids with mental health issues and sexual minority kids are particularly at risk.

There is so much to love about New York City, and there is no question this is a better City - in many ways, a much better City - thanks to Michael Bloomberg. But it is still a very hard place for disadvantaged and homeless young people to climb from poverty to opportunity and homelessness to hope. I look forward to the day when New York City will claim its rightful place on the top of another list: cities that have ended youth homelessness.