By Claire Bourgeois
“Kids at my school don’t know that I’m homeless. If people would find out, they’d probably make fun of me…. I can’t tell my friends, it’s like keeping a secret.”
– 15-year-old Inocente
Homelessness today, a reality faced by over a million youth in America, is a critical problem often made invisible in our otherwise wealthy society. A child or teen left without a home can easily drop off the map without a helping hand nearby and while many look outside their borders to countries whose poverty crisis stands out at first glance, they can fail to recognize what tragedies are happening right in front of them.
Between 2007 and 2011, the rate of homelessness among children increased by a third, according to a report by National Center of Family Homelessness. Last month, the U.S. Department of Education released its report that the number of homeless students in the U.S. topped one million by the end of the 2010-2011 school year. And that is most likely an undercount. The U.S. has the largest number of homeless women and children of any industrialized nation, and nearly 40% of them are under 18. To the majority of people in the U.S living with basic amenities and shelter, those numbers are staggering. However to 13 individuals in particular, the facts surrounding youth homelessness in America were not only shocking but also, unacceptable.
These leading advocates in the struggle against homelessness stand out due to their efforts in sparking foundational changes in the American support system for homeless youth. Their personal initiatives and those of their associated organizations have been incredibly pivotal in the struggle to rehabilitate youth in disparate circumstances. Through support, advocacy and awareness programs, these leaders are collectively paving the way towards a solution for youth homelessness, an issue that is often unrecognized in our society.
In an amazing initiative to acknowledge the work accomplished by these 13 philanthropists, The White House Office of Public Engagement and the United States Council on Homelessness has recognized them as Champions of Change in the Fight Against Child and Youth Homelessness. They were honored at the White House last Thursday, July 12, for their remarkable efforts to serve children, youth and families in need.
A panel discussion with all the Champions moderated by Secretary Donovan and Bryan Samuels, Commissioner of the Administration on Children, Youth and Families not only exposed the issue of youth homelessness, but also elaborated solutions and opportunities for moving forward. Some emphasized the need for efforts to address not just youth homelessness, but youth and family homelessness, in order to stop the cycle of homelessness, others mentioned the importance of asking the young people they work with what they want – and being willing to listen. All shared their experiences and knowledge in order to enlighten others involved in the fight against homelessness.
Another issue addressed is who “qualifies” as homeless. While the Department of Education applies that label to any child without a permanent home, including those temporarily living in motels and on friends’ couches, other arms of the administration do not. A new bill in Congress would require the Department of Housing and Urban Development to expand its definition of homelessness to include those people. As it is currently, these children are deprived of some forms of aid.
Who are the “Champions”?
Providing everything from residential and housing programs, drop in centers, medical aid, emotional support, food stamps and education programs, the work that these organizations and their leaders have done and continue to do has created lasting change in the lives of the youth they serve. From across the country, they were nominated through a public nomination process by colleagues, friends, and community members:
Sherilyn Adams – Executive Director of Larkin Street Youth Services, San Francisco’s largest nonprofit which serves the needs of homeless and runaway youth.
Timothy Baack – Vice President of Milwaukee’s PathFinders, an organization that works to help youth take control of their lives and effectively contribute to their communities.
Steve Bewsey – Director of Housing and Homelessness Services for Youth at LifeWorks in Austin, Texas. He oversees a series of programs that cater to homeless youth such as outreach and emergency assistance.
Frank Cirillo – Director of the Mercer County Board of Social Service in New Jersey. Frank has worked to facilitate a diverse set of social service programs over the past 40 years.
Sol. A. Flores – Founding Executive Director of Chicago-based La Casa Norte, a community based organization that works to serve youth and families facing homelessness.
Paul W. Hamann – President and C.E.O of The Night Ministry, a nonprofit organization that aids members of the Chicago community who are confronting homelessness.
Sparky Harlan – CEO of The Bill Wilson Center, an organization that provides housing, education, counseling and education for youth at risk in Santa Clara, California.
Beth McCullough – Homeless Education Liason for Public Schools in Michigan. Beth has been acting on the belief that “education is the answer” in her fight to homeless children and teens for over a decade.
Tricia Raikes – Co-president of New York based Raikes Foundation, an organization which provides youth with the facilities necessary to develop into strong, independent and contributing adults.
Lisa Stambolis – Director of Pediatric and Adolescent Health at Health Care for the Homeless, Inc in Baltimore. Lisa has been active in her role working with youth to improve their physical and emotional well being.
Margaret Schuelke – Director of Project Community Connections, Inc. Margaret has made lasting changes through her work providing permanent housing and financial aid to the homeless in Atlanta, Georgia.
Deborah Shore – Founder and Executive Director of the Washington-based Sasha Bruce Youthwork (SBY), a multifaceted organization that extends services to runaway youth and families.
Carl Siciliano – Founder of The Ali Forney Center, the nation’s largest housing program for homeless LGBT youth. Carl is a relentless advocate and provider for LGBT youth facing homelessness.
These leaders and their organizations are making a difference in the lives of over 1 million homeless children in the U.S. The cause is personalized in Shine Global’s documentary film Inocente, which tells the story of one girl who is struggling as a homeless and undocumented teen. Fighting to realize her voice as an artist in spite of her circumstances, Inocente exemplifies the very real issue of youth homeless in an inspirational story about the power of optimism and determination. To learn more about the film visit www.inocentedoc.com and support the project on Kickstarter.