Shining a Spotlight on Ending Youth Homelessness

Cyndi Lauper speaks at the National Press Club.

By Jesus Garcia, Special Assistant, Office of Public Affairs, Administration for Children and Families

(This article first appeared on the Family Room blog on Oct. 23, 2014.)

LGBT youth advocate Cyndi Lauper traveled to Washington, D.C., on Oct. 22 to commemorate the 40th Anniversary of the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act, but the three formerly homeless youth joining her on the National Press Club stage soon took the spotlight with their stories of tragedy and hope.

  • Anthony Ross and his sisters scrambled around the house to escape their drug addicted mother, who was once again on a rampage. But this time, her rage included a meat cleaver in hand. The children never saw their home again. The sibling group was separated, and 13-year-old Ross, who never knew his father, ended up on Washington, D.C.’s streets. He was helped by Sasha Bruce Youthwork and today he’s preparing for law school after graduating college with Magna Cum Laude honors.
  • Syncere St. Jamyz had a normal life before his world came crashing down the day his mother died of cancer. His only foundation was gone and now he slept inside abandoned buildings and shelters of Chicago, where he often feared being victimized by homeless adults. Throughout this ordeal, St. Jamyz came out, which brought on the anxiety of who would accept and help a gay homeless teen. Today, St. Jamyz works with homeless youth at The Night Ministry, the very same organization that helped him get off the streets and take back his life.
  • Jessica McCormick became homeless right before her senior year. She left a violent home and bounced among the houses of friends and extended family in Grand Rapids, Michigan. McCormick couldn’t stay with other aunts or uncles, several who were homeless themselves or fighting addiction. Her refuge was her own education that she kept on pursuing with the help of Arbor Circle. Social workers at the agency worked with college administrators to get McCormick financial aid and housing even before school started. Today, she advocates for other students who face homelessness.

These three young adults were given a second chance at life thanks to a network of runaway and homeless youth shelters and caring adults that didn’t give up on them. They, along with government officials and advocates, sat on a panel to discuss the runaway and homeless youth issue with reporters.

Lauper, a long-time advocate for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth, pointed out a glaring statistic from recent studies on homeless youth. 

“I think it’s alarming that up to 40 percent of all runaways and homeless youth are LGBT, when they only make up seven percent of the general population,” said Lauper. “These kids are being thrown away because of who they are. We need these kids. You don’t know who they’re going to be.”

ACF’s Acting Assistant Secretary Mark Greenberg told audience members that we’ve come a long way since the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act was signed in 1974. “Before the Act, young people who had run away or been found on the streets were routinely viewed as delinquents and put in detention centers or jails,” he said. “Today, the Act enables youth-serving organizations across the country to move young people into stable housing and provide vital services such as family and individual counseling, education support and career training.”

This past fiscal year, ACF’s Family and Youth Services Bureau provided funding for:

  • Emergency shelters that served more than 30,000 young people 
  • Transitional living programs that served 3,322 young people 
  • Street Outreach Programs in more than 100 communities, which made contact with youth more than 600,000 times
  • A national hotline that answers 200 calls daily

Recently, FYSB funded a first-of-its-kind study that focused on more than 600 14- to 21-year-olds in 11 cities. Respondents included street youth served by FYSB’s Street Outreach Program grantees and street youth who were not using services. The study found the following:

  • On average, the youth became homeless for the first time at age 15
  • The average youth spent nearly two years living on the streets
  • More than 60 percent were raped, beaten up, robbed or otherwise assaulted
  • Nearly 30 percent of participants identified as gay, lesbian or bisexual, and nearly 7 percent identified as transgender

Panelist Laura Green Zeilinger, the executive director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, welcomed the new study.

“Because of the very nature of youth homelessness, what we know about it is limited and improving the data is vital. That is why the release of this new study is so important,” Zeilinger said. “This effort adds to the understanding we have. What gets measured gets done, which is why getting to a confident estimate of the size of the population is critical.”

Resa Matthew, director of FYSB’s Division of Adolescent Development and Support, shared study findings that dispel myths surrounding runaway and homeless youth.

After the event, the biggest champion in the room, Lauper, reminded the audience that even though she is a small gal, she has a very big voice and big mouth. She met with every single advocate, posed for pictures and encouraged organizations and federal offices at the function to hire the impressive youth on the panel as either staff members or interns.

When a reporter asked Lauper how she felt about her recent Songwriters Hall of Fame nomination, she quickly brought back the conversation to homeless youth.

Lauper took time to thank representatives from Senators’ Susan Collins (R-ME) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) offices for coming to the event and for the sponsoring of Runaway and Homeless Youth and Trafficking Prevention Act, a Senate bill reauthorizing aid programs. Lauper underscored the need to support this bill to increase funding for programs that help runaway and homeless youth and to add language that makes sure every young person — no matter their sexual orientation or gender identity — gets the same services and respect they deserve.

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