Downtown march spotlights homeless youth, runaways

Chanting “A roof for every youth” and carrying signs with similar slogans, about 100 people marched through downtown San Diego on Thursday afternoon to increase awareness of the challenges runaways and homeless youths face.

Launching at noon from the TAY (Transitional Age Youth) Academy on Broadway, marchers walked 2.5 miles that brought them past the courthouse, restaurants and the Star of India to bring a message that more services and housing is needed for youths.

The march, held in conjunction with National Homeless Youth Awareness Month, culminated with a rally on the bay side of the County Administration Center, where several formerly homeless youths shared their stories.

San Diego City Councilman Chris Ward, chair of the city’s Select Committee on Homelessness, said there are about 900 homeless youths in the county on any given day.

The number likely is higher, said Walter Philips, CEO of San Diego Youth Services, because homeless youths tend to blend in the overall population or couch surf with friends, making their actual numbers frustratingly elusive.

Philips estimated there may be only about 100 beds in the county dedicated to homeless youths, and many at the rally said there is a pressing need for more shelter beds in the region.

According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, 2.5 million youth a year experience homeless. San Diego Youth Service’s website states that 31 percent of all young people experiencing homelessness in the nation live in California, yet two-thirds of the state’s counties lack basic services for young people.

With a recent influx of state and national funds to address the issue, however, several speakers were optimistic about changes on the horizon.

“We have the resources and we have the political will to do better,” Ward said to the crowd at the rally. “How are we going to make 2019 the year we end youth homelessness? I’ll tell you how. It starts because of visibility through events like this.”

In July, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded $7.9 million to the Regional Task Force on the Homeless to create a Youth Homeless Demonstration Program.

As a condition of the grant, the largest of any HUD grant to address youth homelessness in the nation, the task force was required to create an advisory board on how to spend the money.

Tamera Kohler, interim CEO of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, said the new Homeless Youth Advisory Board must approve of any plans to spend the money.

“That is a completely different approach to allocating HUD funds,” she said. “This is such a powerful opportunity for us to engage with those who are experiencing homelessness and hear what they know they need, and craft a program around that.”

The task force learned last month that it will receive $18.8 million from the state’s Homeless Emergency Aid Program. Of that, at least $941,000 must be spent on youth programs.

The march and rally were organized by the Junior League of San Diego and San Diego Youth Services/TAY Academy and other partners.

“A lot of youth leave the foster system without a safety net,” said Emily Lake, president elect of the Junior League. “The Junior League is here to service that need.”

Lake said about 200 young people leave the foster system each year and immediately become homeless.

Representatives of state Assembly Todd Gloria and state Sen.Toni Atkins also attended the rally. Atkins’ intern Sienna Dimuro, 17, also briefly spoke and said she once had been homeless, but now is a senior at E3 Civic High School in the Central Library.

The rally’s emcee was Dairrick Hodges of The SOULcial Workers Collective, a theater arts group that supports at-risk youth.

“I was one of the homeless in plain sight,” Hodges said. “Not too many years ago, I was sleeping not too far from here in Balboa Park.”

Hodges thanked the YMCA and other agencies for helping get off the street and finding a career.

Also at the rally, Jessica Hamilton told the crowd about her own past challenges, including the time she lost custody of her children and went to rehab at 19.

She credited the nonprofit Home Start with getting her sober, and people in the rally cheered for her when she said she was on the staff by the time she left and now is on the board of directors for Home Start and the California Coalition for Youth.

Twitter: @GaryWarthUT


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