Suppose there were 3,800 children living on their own or without homes in New York City, but only 250 shelter beds for them. According to the nonprofit providers of the city's shelter beds, some of those kids — sometimes hundreds and hundreds of them — are turned away each night because there's not enough space for them.
How would we address that?
One answer would be to cut the number of beds and turn even more homeless kids back to the street.
And that's exactly what had been proposed for the 2014 city budget by cutting $12.6 million to $7.2 million and reducing beds to an estimated 90.
Let me quickly reassure you that no cut was actually adopted. But that issue brought me to a rally last month on the steps of City Hall to talk about helping runaway and homeless kids.
It was an unforgettable rally. What moved me weren't the well-reasoned arguments and statistics of advocates like Jennifer March-Joly and Caroline Nagy of the Citizens Committee for Children of New York. Not even the heart-wrenching providers' stories of turning kids away each day as they ran out of beds — and can you imagine how that feels for the people who devote their lives to serving kids in need.
It was the kids.
The kids, all under 18, spoke about life on hard streets and having a safe place to lay their heads. But mostly they talked about the other kids, the ones on the streets who hadn't found a bed, "the turned away kids."
One young woman [girl] struggled to ask that those other kids get a safe place, too, questioning aloud if she was greedy to be asking. Another boldly said everyone should be able to get a bed and at least one meal a day. One. That teenager concluded, "I hope I'm not asking too much." Of course, he was asking for far, far too little.
They're just kids. Most of them either escaped from sexual or physical abuse or got thrown out after "coming out" about a sexual orientation their parents wouldn't accept. They seemed scared and bewildered. Mostly they're hurt.
A recent Covenant House and Fordham University study of these runaway and thrown-away kids in New York City found 25 percent had either been "trafficked" in the illegal sex industry or involved in "survival sex" — trading their bodies for a place to stay or a meal. On the streets they're at constant risk of mental and physical health problems, especially violence or sexually transmitted diseases like HIV.
Jane Bigelsen, director of the Anti-Human Trafficking Initiative for Covenant House, told how pimps approach the turned-away street kids. He said they say, "The shelters are full. Where are you going to go? Why don't you come with me?"
Councilman Lew Fidler, the longtime, staunchest supporter of runaway and unaccompanied kids who will be term-limited off Council in January, asked, "For crying out loud, can't we find a shelter bed for every young person who needs one?" Fidler, too, said the kids who can't find beds are "forced in one way or another to sell their body, their soul, their dignity."
Providing beds for unaccompanied minors isn't without controversy. There are critics opposed to providing "opportunities" for kids to runaway, or who would place them in more restrictive institutions or other forms of government care.
Current providers do frequently reunite runaways with their families and they offer high-quality and varied human services and counseling. Many of the kids, who now self-report to these shelters they trust say they would avoid more restrictive programs. Surely this debate can't be between theoretical government care programs and non-existent shelter beds, while thousands of kids remain prey on the streets.
There is a more fundamental point. American public policy hasn't been kind to our children.
The poorest age group in America is children under 18. The Census Bureau reports 22 percent of children, over 16 million of them, lived in poverty in 2011. Kids make up 24 percent of the U.S. population but 34 percent of those living in poverty.
Over seven million children live in "extreme poverty," defined as living in a household with income less than half of the poverty level. That's currently below $11,511 annually for a family of four.
One in four (25.1 percent) of American children under 5 years of age live in poverty. It's one in three for black or Hispanic kids.
UNICEF recently published an alarming study of child poverty in the world. In one chart, they ranked developed countries on a measure of poverty they devised tracking the percentage of kids in families living below the national median income. Of 35 countries the U.S. came in 34th, beating out Romania. Finland ranked highest, but we also lost out to Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Estonia, Slovenia and the Czech Republic, among others.
The statistics in our city are grimmer. The city Health Department reports 20 percent of kids between 6 and 12 — about 145,000 city kids — struggle with mental health issues. Half of third graders read below grade level. One in every dozen babies born in New York City is underweight.
As sequestration cuts spending, and an austerity policy gnaws at the American safety net and our social compact to give all kids a chance, the programs being hurt the most are disproportionately programs for kids.
Sequestration has brutalized head start programs, cut childhood immunizations and federally funded child care. Cuts to the federal Maternal and Child Health programs will stop millions of families in need from getting access to that service over the next decade. The proposed SNAP food stamps cuts being debated in Washington would literally take food out of the mouths of babies.
We need a national movement to raise all children out of poverty. But let's start with an effort to make sure all the kids have a safe place to rest their heads at night. And maybe we can splurge for two meals a day.
Jeff Foreman is Policy Director for Care for the Homeless. Follow him on @JeffForeman2
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