Congress to Homeless Youth: You're Expendable

Update Friday afternoon: The Department of Health and Human Services has "concluded that... rejected claims should be subject to further review" and that grantees should resubmit their requests for funding beginning Tuesday, Oct. 15.

Update Friday morning: The National Network for Youth reports that some Health and Human Services staff has reported to headquarters to help address some problems agencies have had accessing federal funds.

It would be hard to find a more vulnerable population to kick in the gut. Each year, more than 1.6 million children experience an episode of homelessness in the United States. The shutdown of the federal government is causing too many of them clear and preventable hardship, as agencies that serve them are unable to access grant money and are forced to furlough employees and cut services.

Just as homeless teens often live from one safe bed and food pantry to the next, most of the agencies that serve them are bare-bones operations that suffer greatly when their sources of funding freeze up. At Covenant House, we run shelters and outreach programs in 20 American cities, reaching kids who have no safe alternatives to a shelter. It is appalling that in some of these cities, we are now the only open shelter for kids. Every day, we hear of another agency forced to close as a result of the government shutdown.

Grants for street outreach and centers for homeless youth were supposed to be announced on October 1, but that announcement and the funding to follow have been delayed indefinitely. (These delays aren't inevitable: the Department of Education had a contingency plan for getting money through to important grantees.)

And it's not like last year was so great for homeless kids -- reductions in federal funding forced agencies to turn away 2,466 kids from day centers and shelters, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

HHS has notified us that it considers programs under the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act non-essential. Leaders there are supposedly debating a change in that designation, but debate doesn't put food on the table or a blanket around a kid's shoulders. How in the world is it possible that government leaders have not yet determined these beds are part of an emergency service vital to the safety of youth? It's unfathomable to me, and I very much doubt this would be happening if these leaders were once homeless kids themselves who had to rely on shelters to stay safe from the streets.

Sasha Bruce Youthwork, based in Washington, D.C., furloughed 46 full-time staff yesterday [10/10], as it can't draw on federal funds, and its local contracts set to begin on October 1 can't be signed during the shutdown. An additional six staff will be forced to work part-time.

"It is hard enough that the federal government does not deem services for runaway and homeless youth as essential," said the agency's founder, Deborah Shore, "but worse is that our essential local dollars are being frozen as the cold weather approaches."

The National Network for Youth has been collecting examples of the shutdown's effect on homeless kids. The toll is grim, and it's rising:

  • Because Congress failed to pass a continuing resolution, 25 transitional living programs could not receive gap funding to continue their services. Youth Bridge in Arkansas had to combine two residential programs and move young people to a different county, forcing them to change schools and making it more difficult for them to reconnect with family members. Women's Center - Youth and Family Services, which shelters 750 in 11 sites in California reports the shutdown has frozen 50 percent of its funding.
  • Open Arms, Inc. in Albany, Georgia had to lay off staff and cut hours, and is struggling to pay its remaining workers.
  • National Safe Place, a national outreach program, notes that services endangered by the shutdown are "absolutely essential" to the young people asking for them, and more people are seeking help from agencies as the shutdown continues to imperil people in poverty.
  • Volunteers of America-Utah has had to furlough staff and stop its street outreach program.
  • The Listening Ear program in Michigan reports having to deny services to numerous youth.

So what are we to do?

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat from Maryland, urged advocates reach out to Congress and call for an immediate end to the shutdown. However, she reminded people that mail is not being delivered to Congressional offices, which don't have enough staff to read e-mail messages. She suggested calling the offices of elected officials, reaching them via Twitter or Facebook, or writing to local newspapers.

Darla Bardine, the policy director of the National Network for Youth, summed up our frustrations elegantly in a letter to Congress:

"Each day this shutdown continues and runaway and homeless youth programs are considered nonessential, we fail America's most vulnerable, forgotten, and ignored youth. Congress must pass a budget and scale up vital interventions for America's runaway and homeless youth. Children are suffering while Congress engages in partisan posturing. As a nation, we must do better."

I hope someone is there to deliver it. And read it. And act on it.

The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development has decided that some of the shelter services for homeless adults are emergency programs, and have continued to fund this vital safety net. But, once again, children are left out in the cold, because Health and Human Services has not made a similar decision.

I do still believe one day we will build a world where the well-being of children matters as much as the well-being of adults, but it is sadly clear to me that today is not that day.