The holidays hit homeless youth hard. Everywhere they look, people are spending money, showing loved ones how much they care, heading home for big feasts. If you're a kid with no money, no loved ones, and no home, the songs piped into every store can sting.
So at Covenant House, where we serve homeless, runaway and trafficked young people in 27 cities across the Americas, we're glad to be feeling a breath of holiday cheer from the nation's capital, as Congress prepares to pass a spending bill for Fiscal Year 2016 that is more focused on the fight to end youth homelessness than any budget in more than a decade.
For the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Omnibus Spending Bill calls for $115 million more for Homeless Assistance Grants, a five percent increase over last year. To reach and engage homeless youth, the bill provides up to $33 million for comprehensive projects to reduce youth homelessness in up to ten communities. And homeless young people seeking assistance from HUD will no longer need to provide written proof that they were homeless or could no longer stay doubled up with friends, which many found impossible to do. Young people who had not previously been considered homeless because they were staying with abusive people or traffickers will now be able get services from agencies that receive HUD Homeless Assistance Grants.
The bill also directs HUD to balance the priorities of homeless youth, families, veterans and people who are chronically homeless. It's a big break-through; in previous years, I frequently felt the needs of homeless youth received short shrift.
Under the bill, Title 1 Grants to School Districts are increasing $500 million from last year, in part to help homeless children and youth receive transportation to their home schools.
We're delighted to see the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act, which funds a national safety net for homeless kids, is set to receive $119 million, up almost $5 million or 4 percent from last year, and the first increase since 2010. The McKinney-Vento Act's Education for Homeless Children and Youth Act is also slated to receive another $5 million, for a total of $70 million, the first increase since 2009.
"This is great," said Darla Bardine, executive director of the National Network for Youth. "We haven't seen this type of increase in years, and we need this type of increase to continue, because kids are actually dying because they don't have help."
To be sure, much more work remains in the years ahead. We need HUD to use the same definition of youth homelessness that the Department of Education does – currently HUD doesn't consider minors who are couch surfing or staying in motels to be homeless; many young people who need services aren't eligible for HUD help. In addition, some of the provisions of the bill would apply only to this fiscal year, and we have to work to make them more enduring. Finally, when funding is available "up to" a certain amount, we plan to be vigilant to see that all the possible investment reaches the kids who most need them.
We need Congress to pass this spending bill, and we will also work for the passage of the Homeless Children and Youth Act, and the reauthorization and adequate funding of the Runaway and Homeless Youth and Trafficking Prevention Act.
We are grateful to organizations like the National Network for Youth and the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth for all their work meeting with administrators and lawmakers in support of vulnerable young people. We believe their hard work drew attention to the plight of homeless youth, and made a big difference this year.
Let's continue to fight to end youth homelessness and give more kids a reason to celebrate a Happy New (fiscal) Year in 2016.
Kevin M. Ryan