Helping America’s Homeless Youth Find Their Confidence And Voice

Every night, hundreds of thousands of homeless children and youth are homeless. That is nearly one-third of the entire homeless population. Even more shocking is the fact that tens of thousands of children and teens face the danger and despair of homelessness alone, unaccompanied by a parent or guardian.

It is important to note that these distressing federal statistics reflect a survey of a single point in time in 2014. The reality is that many more young people find themselves homeless for a period of time throughout the course of a year. In fact, the Department of Education’s most recent data reported that more than 1.2 million students experienced homelessness at some point during the 2012-2013 school year, including 75,940 unaccompanied youth.

As Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee with oversight of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, I recently chaired a hearing to assess the Department’s efforts to prevent and end youth homelessness. In 2010, the Administration set the goal of preventing and ending child and youth homelessness by 2020. This hearing addressed two important purposes. The first was to help increase Congress’ understanding of how federal programs can be strengthened to better support homeless youth while operating within the tight financial constraints we face. The second was to explore partnerships since successfully ending youth homelessness cannot be done through federal funds alone. Ending youth homelessness requires cooperation and coordination across federal agencies, at different levels of government, and in partnership with the philanthropic and non-profit sector and families.

Two of our hearing witnesses made just that point with testimony that was personal and powerful. One was Brittany Dixon of Auburn, Maine. The other, was the world-famous, award-winning singer Cyndi Lauper. Both of these remarkable women overcame homelessness as teens to build productive lives and to serve others. Both were helped through those extraordinarily difficult years by the public-private partnerships we must cultivate and support.

Brittany Dixon may not be as famous as Cyndi Lauper, but she is certainly just as inspiring. Left homeless at age 18, she told the Subcommittee, “Nothing can prepare a teenager for the overwhelming and frightening feelings of being alone and having nowhere to go and no one to turn to.”

With the aid of the domestic violence help line Safe Voices, Brittany was referred to New Beginnings, an outstanding Lewiston-based organization that provides emergency services and transitional living programs for youth throughout the state of Maine. New Beginnings helped her regain a sense of safety and the security of having a place to call home, and provided her with other resources to succeed – from assistance with college applications to developing such life skills as living on a budget, shopping wisely, and using public transportation.

Most important, New Beginnings helped Ms. Dixon develop self-esteem and confidence. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Maine Farmington at 2013, now supports herself as an educational technician at an elementary school in Auburn, and aspires to teach kindergarten. As for her journey to self-reliance, she told the Subcommittee this: “I didn’t need to be supported forever, only until I could move to the next level for myself.”

Ms. Lauper also shared her personal story as a homeless teen. With the help of a youth hostel program, she got off the streets, earned her GED, and with talent and hard work, became a successful singer and songwriter.

Ms. Lauper also told the Subcommittee she uses her “big voice” to speak for disenfranchised youth. She is the co-founder of the True Colors Fund, which works nationally to end homelessness among lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth. While only 7 percent of the overall youth population is LGBT, they comprise up to 40 percent of homeless teens and young adults. True Colors currently is working with federal agencies in Houston and Cincinnati to develop local, community-based youth homelessness prevention plans that can be models of collaboration nationwide.

Homeless youth are especially vulnerable to sexual exploitation, of which there have been horrifying cases here in Maine and across the nation. Ms. Lauper is an eloquent supporter of the bipartisan Runaway and Homeless Youth Trafficking Prevention Act that I cosponsored to strengthen critical preventive and treatment services. While this important legislation has failed to advance in the Senate, despite receiving a majority vote, I will continue to advocate for its passage.

The importance of federal funding to support local efforts is clear here in Maine. New Beginnings in Lewiston, Shaw House in Bangor, and the Preble Street Resource Center in Portland are among those that have used federal resources to connect young people who need food, safe shelter, health services, and educational support with those who can provide those services. The inspiring stories of Brittany Dixon and Cyndi Lauper are strong evidence that collaboration among the various levels of government and local initiatives can truly make a difference in the lives of the most vulnerable among us.