Homeless Youth Deserve The National Spotlight

As the nation's two parties gather for their nominating conventions, we hear a lot of talk about homeland security, public safety, and economic opportunity. But what we don't hear much about is the plight of homeless youth in America. Aren't they entitled to be part of both parties' visions for a better America? We believe that, given the opportunity, they can be among the brightest stars in our future.

We at Covenant House do know one thing from watching the conventions -- the host cities sure do clean up well. Cleveland and Philadelphia put on their finery and pulled out all the stops to create an environment that allowed convention visitors to experience the best of what they had to offer. But where were our kids? Homeless adults were a bit in the spotlight during the ramp-up to both conventions. Their increasingly visible presence in downtown Philly has concerned some in the community.

Recent construction projects at the downtown LOVE Park and Benjamin Franklin Parkway have uprooted homeless adults who used to stay there. About 50 have been sleeping under the underpass of the Philadelphia Convention Center, in the heart of Center City, seven miles from the Wells Fargo Center, where the Democrats will be meeting, but very close to many hotels and restaurants.

The city recently agreed to provide an additional 100 temporary beds for homeless people, similar to beds that open up during freezing temperatures. Some observers believed the city was merely tidying up the streets for its expected 50,000 visitors.

"So it's an emergency when it's freezing and when we have company," wrote Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Mike Newall.

Mayor Jim Kenney tried to dispel that view in May, when he announced new outreach workers to encourage people to leave the streets.

"I think we have an opportunity to utilize some of the clout the Democratic Party is bringing," he said, "but it's not getting ready for the Democratic Party."

City officials have said they do not want to make the 100 beds permanent, because they want to focus on permanent supportive housing. But there's not enough of any kind of bed to go around, with an estimated 700 homeless people in Philadelphia.

These discussions have left unsheltered young people behind, despite their greater vulnerability and invisibility.

"None of this is targeted for youth, who are being massively under-resourced," said John Ducoff, executive director of Covenant House Pennsylvania, which last year served 512 homeless young people, but turned away 546 more. The city's effort to provide 100 extra beds keeps the focus on the very visible adult homeless population, while homeless young people don't cross the city's radar enough.

"The city of brotherly love hasn't yet shown that love to all of its homeless young people," Mr. Ducoff said. "They're moving from couch to couch to couch, from friend to friend to friend, until they run out of friends. They're hiding in plain sight."

Adult homeless people were in the news in preparation for the Republican National Convention last week. Cleveland had to reduce the size of its proposed 3.3-square-mile event zone, the largest ever, after a lawsuit by a coalition including the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless. Represented by an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer, the group argued that the zone, which included four homeless shelters and some homeless encampments, would result in homeless residents being searched and harassed unlawfully. In the zone people were prohibited from carrying canned food, coolers, tents, and umbrellas. As a result of the suit, the city also agreed to let a Parade to End Poverty finish up downtown instead of in an unpopulated neighborhood, as originally proposed.

Covenant House Pennsylvania has been part of an anti-trafficking awareness effort in anticipation of the convention. Large sporting events and conventions that attract many out-of-towners to a city have been known to attract pimps and trafficked young people as well. In some cities, Covenant House studies have shown that about a quarter of the homeless young people interviewed have been trafficked or otherwise commercially sexually exploited.

Before the convention, the DNC Human Trafficking Collaborative, which Covenant House Pennsylvania joined, distributed posters, set up an information table at the convention, and reached out to hotel personnel, offering trainings on how to recognize signs that a guest may be trafficked.

Let's hope that homeless young people, who may have been hidden from view and from the narrative of the political conventions, get their rightful place, front and center in the national conversation about who will lead the country.

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