Homeless youth need support now more than ever

LOS ANGELES – This week marks the 40th anniversary of the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act (RHYA), which has provided funding for services to youth experiencing homelessness across the nation. Forty years after the initial legislation, the services that RHYA funds are needed now more than ever.

It is estimated that there are close to 1.6 million homeless youth in the U.S. today.   Youth become homeless for a number of reasons, including: family violence and neglect, rejection due to sexual orientation or gender identity, the overwhelmed child welfare system, and extreme poverty. These youth almost always have experienced unimaginable abuse and trauma in their homes, their communities, and on the street. RHYA-funded services and programs help to rectify the deep injustices that homeless youth experience on a daily basis.

RHYA specifically funds three different programs for homeless youth: street outreach, which aims to transition youth off the streets; basic centers, which provide youth temporary shelter and services; and transitional living programs, which provides longer-term housing and support to youth 16-21 years of age. In July of this year new federal legislation was introduced in Congress, the Runaway and Homeless Youth Trafficking and Prevention Act.

This new legislation would reauthorize the original RHYA and strengthen the law to better serve homeless youth today. The new law adds a nondiscrimination clause, which would ensure that all youth seeking services, including LGBTQ youth, are treated fairly and with dignity by agencies receiving federal funding. This clause directly reflects the current homeless youth population, almost 40 percent of whom identify as LGBTQ. In addition, the new law would require culturally competent and comprehensive care and services for all homeless youth, including LGBTQ youth and others who are survivors of human trafficking, violence and exploitation.

Over the past 40 years, millions of youth have been impacted by RHYA. This one piece of legislation has been the cornerstone of homeless youth services for decades and has literally been a lifeline for untold numbers of young people. As a social worker working with homeless youth, I have seen first-hand the extraordinary work of the RHYA-funded programs.

In the course of my work, I have witnessed the beautiful transformation that happens when youth are transitioned off the street and into supportive housing programs. In such programs, youth can heal from trauma, learn basic life skills, obtain a job, pursue their education, repair relationships with their family, and begin to reach their highest goals. In short, RHYA and the agencies that receive the funding seek to restore dignity to youth. It provides them with the support and care necessary not just to survive but thrive.  

Passage by Congress of the updated RHYA, Runaway and Homeless Youth Trafficking and Prevention Act, is imperative for these broken, damaged lives. There is no better way to honor the 40th anniversary of RHYA and the million-plus homeless youth today, ensuring that the beauty, strength and potential of our country’s youth are elevated, and that they will be able to move out of homelessness and into their dreams. 

Frank McAlpin is a social worker based in Hollywood (Los Angeles).

Photo: Homeless teens on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles. Southern California Public Radio