Helping America’s Homeless Youth

This month, U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Julián Castro accepted my invitation to travel to Maine to see firsthand how organizations in our state tackle the very important issue of runaway and youth homelessness. I have worked closely with Secretary Castro on a number of issues, and he has been a willing and eager partner in our work together to prevent and end youth homelessness nationwide.

The nearly 195,000 homeless children and teens across our nation make up approximately one-third of the entire homeless population in America. More than 45,000 of these children face the danger and despair of homelessness alone, unaccompanied by a parent or guardian.

As Chairman of the Senate Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development Appropriations Subcommittee, combatting youth homelessness in Maine and across the United States continues to be one of my top priorities. In April, I chaired a hearing that examined HUD’s efforts to help meet our national goal of ending child, youth, and family homelessness by 2020. Our hearing featured two witnesses who, with the help of effective programs, overcame homelessness as teens to build productive lives and to serve others.

The first witness was the award-winning recording artist and youth homelessness activist, Cyndi Lauper.  The second was Brittany Dixon of Auburn, an alumni of New Beginnings, an outstanding Lewiston-based organization that provides emergency services and transitional living programs for youth throughout Maine. With help of the resources and dedicated staff at New Beginnings, Brittany has earned a college degree, supports herself as an educational technician, and is pursuing her goal of teaching kindergarten.

Secretary Castro and I spend a great deal of time in Washington pouring over budget numbers and looking at statistics. For this reason, it was refreshing and important for us to hear directly from people who are affected by the policy decisions that we make.

One such person was Hailey, age 17, who shared her compelling story when Secretary Castro and I visited New Beginnings, the only 24-hour licensed shelter for children and teens in Maine.

Hailey was put into foster care at age nine, the first of more than 25 foster home placements in her young life. As a homeless teen, she stayed with friends and family, at shelters, and even in places that were not safe. She faced many obstacles including hunger and a lack of physical and mental health care.

With the help of New Beginnings, Hailey persevered and turned her life around.  Without New Beginnings, she told Secretary Castro and me, “I would be living on a park bench.”

Instead, she just graduated from high school and is entering a program that will help her develop workplace skills and secure her own housing.

This statement from Hailey makes clear why the issue of ending youth homelessness is so urgent: “What I can’t stress enough is that we are children, minors who have no home or sense of security in really anything.”

It was a pleasure to introduce Secretary Castro to New Beginnings Executive Director Bob Rowe and Shelter Director Marian Carney so he could learn how the organization has brought government agencies, businesses, charities, law enforcement, schools, and the entire community together to build a program that is a model for the nation.

From its start 35 years ago to the opening of the new Ann Geiger Center this spring, New Beginnings has helped homeless youth gain the sense of safety and security of having a place to call home, and provided them with other resources to succeed, from assistance with college applications to developing such life skills as living on a budget and learning to cook.  In order to serve youth like this, New Beginnings has received federal funding as part of the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act, which allowed it to expand its outreach program.

While in Maine, Secretary Castro and I also had the opportunity to meet with 60 representatives from virtually all of the Public Housing Authorities across Maine. These individuals are on the front lines of serving those who might otherwise be homeless or who are just one paycheck away from homelessness. Their input is crucially important to developing and funding federal programs aimed at ensuring safe, decent, affordable housing for some of our most vulnerable citizens.

The powerful stories we heard from young people in Maine underscore the ongoing need for these critical programs. Effective organizations like New Beginnings and committed leaders like Secretary Castro send a powerful message to the most vulnerable among us: there are people who care about you, who want you to be safe, and who want you to succeed.