Too Young to Help

I went back to my hometown, Philadelphia, to report a story on runaway and homeless youth for Al Jazeera America. It was a difficult story to report because I was one of those kids.

I was 14 the first time I knocked on a shelter door. The women who answered promptly turned me away because I was too young to help. When those needing a safe place for the night are unaccompanied homeless minors, the city says its adult and family shelters cannot provide them an emergency bed.

Even though that was more than a decade ago, I was appalled to learn that homeless teens still don't have a reliable overnight haven in the City of Brotherly Love today. There simply aren't beds available for them.

Philadelphia is not unique. According to the National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway and Thrownaway Children, there are more than 1.7 million unaccompanied homeless youth in this country. America is failing to help hundreds of thousands of kids who have no safe place to go each night. The support systems that are supposed to protect them aren't working.

The youth I met while reporting the story were honest about what they experienced, willing to open up about their lives. They talked about how they were treated by their guardians and the city's child welfare, housing and juvenile justice systems; how they struggled with addiction, violence, sexual abuse, unemployment and dropping out of school because they were homeless.

When I started reporting, every service provider I spoke to used the same adjective to describe homeless youth: invisible. They argued that there isn't an easy way to count homeless youth, which makes it harder to advocate for resources to help them.

One director even admitted that there isn't an adequate count because if the city doesn't know how bad the problem is, they aren't required to fix it. When it comes to prioritizing line items on the budget, deniability is better than accountability.

The truth is, these kids aren't hard to find. I had less than two weeks to report on the ground, enough time to interview more than a dozen homeless youth.

They are not invisible. We just don't want to see them.

The youth I talked to made it a point to tell me they weren't perfect. But the point is, they shouldn't have to be. Kids should never have to earn a safety net. They aren't bad kids. They just lost the family lottery.

At the very least, youth need adequate emergency resources. They deserve access to a safety net, even if all that can be offered at the moment is the bare minimum, the very basics of survival: a safe place to sleep, access to food, medical and mental health care, the chance to stay in school.

Don't get me wrong, a shelter bed for the night isn't a home. But it's a start.