This month the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development released results of its “point in time” survey, for which local teams count all the homeless people to be found on one night in January.
In New Jersey, there were 13,025 people without permanent housing that night, including 2,695 severely mentally ill people and 592 veterans. More than 1,500 of them were found in Newark or elsewhere in Essex County.
Those totals don’t parse out all of the young people who have no place to go, the young adults who aged out of foster care without families, who got kicked out of their homes for being gay or pregnant, or who are couch-surfing because their parents can’t or won’t shelter them.
Counting homeless young people is a challenge in any season – for their own safety, young people with no place to go often don't want to be recognized and work hard to remain invisible. Pimps, muggers, and gangs quickly sniff out vulnerable young people, and those stories don't end well.
With the right amount of political will, we can reduce youth homelessness, while saving society significant money. We have the tools available to keep kids off the streets, in safe families; we just need more people to join the movement to protect vulnerable young people.
Our gubernatorial candidates, whoever they may be, should tackle these issues in their campaigns. Youth homelessness is not inevitable, and it can end in our lifetime. This battle is absolutely winnable. To do so, here's what needs to happen:
Fight Human Trafficking Robustly: Too many homeless young people, both male and female, end up in prostitution, and therefore in grave danger.
The demand for sexually exploited young people – most of whom were born in this country -- can be reduced simply by enforcing existing laws. Police need to be aggressive with sting operations to find pimps and johns. Our police academies need to train officers to look for the signs of trafficking, much as they strengthened their instruction on domestic violence intervention in the wake of new reform laws decades ago.
And every state should follow New York and New Jersey’s lead and pass Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Youth Acts, which treat minors arrested for prostitution as victims. Trafficked children can then receive shelter and services, instead of a sentence to juvenile detention, but more safe beds and supportive services like education and job training are needed, to help them rebuild their lives.
Pimps and exploiters search out vulnerable kids on the street, so as we make progress reducing the number of homeless young people with nowhere safe to go, we can reduce the supply of future prostituted kids.
Mental Health: Homeless young people, former foster kids, and those at risk of becoming homeless need comprehensive and affordable counseling, substance-abuse treatment, and medical care that is conveniently located and free of stigma.
We know how to make it easier for homeless kids to obtain meaningful and helpful mental health care, as we’ve shown in our Vancouver, B.C., shelter, which has three master’s-level clinicians and four social workers, so kids with complex needs who desire counseling or substance abuse treatment can get help on-site.
A psychiatrist is available to see kids before and after school or work, to accommodate their schedules, and another is on-call 24 hours a day. The average wait to see a psychiatrist dropped from six months to eight days, kids went from keeping half of their appointments to making 80 to 90 percent of them, and over three years the number of annual hospitalizations from the shelter dropped drastically, from 15 to three.
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