Sequestration’s Short-Sighted Abuse of Programs for Homeless Youth

by Kevin Ryan

When I read that Congress had sent its budget to President Obama for his signature today, all I could think of was the nearly 1,700 homeless young people who will sleep beneath a Covenant House roof in one of 19 cities across the country tonight. Tens of thousands more — kids fleeing abuse, violence, abandonment or the death of a parent — are out there tonight in need of safe shelters, away from the pimps, traffickers, gangs and johns who prey on the young.

For all of these homeless young people, worse news is following bad news on Capitol Hill. As Congress has settled on how to fund the U.S. government through September 2013, the only federal program targeted specifically to homeless and trafficked kids, the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act, is about to be slashed.

It is hard enough to realize that these funds, for street outreach, crisis centers, and transitional living programs, will be subject to the five percent across the board cuts known as sequestration.

But now, the Senate is proposing to apply that five percent cut retroactively to the 2012 budget figures Congress plans to use to get through the end of its fiscal year, since no current year-long budget has been passed. Under the stop-gap funding measure known as the Continuing Resolution, funds for homeless kids will be five percent lower than they were last year.

So youth programs will be slashed by $6 million, down to $109 million in 2013 from $115 million in 2012. To put in perspective how low a priority Congress has made homeless youth, that $109 million is $1 million less than the cost of just one of the 458 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft military planned to have produced in 2012.

We at Covenant House know these cuts are extremely short-sighted. RHYA programs save society significant money. Long-term, they create new taxpayers. It costs only $5,378 to move a young person into permanent housing, with supportive services, according to a study by Urban Peak in Denver. That young person is far more likely to get a job and contribute to society than a young person who is stuck on the street, getting sick, losing hope, and facing the risk of violence, sexual exploitation, and the temptations of crime.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development has estimated that if sequestration lasts just six months, 125,000 families stand to lose their Section 8 housing vouchers, and 100,000 people with special needs will lose their permanent supportive housing. That translates directly into more homeless people, and more runaway and homeless youth.

We urge people who care about our most vulnerable young people to help us convince the Senate Appropriations Committee to restore funding to RHYA in the FY2014 budget. And we ask everyone to urge President Obama to restore sustainable levels of funding to homeless and runaway young people in his budget, to be released April 8.

We can’t balance the budget on the backs of our most desperate young people. It is a sad and terrible moment for our nation when the suffering of homeless young people is treated as an opportunity for savings, rather than a clarion call for relief.

Kevin Ryan is the CEO of Covenant House, a national provider of services for abused, runaway and homeless youth. Ryan is the former of the New Jersey Department of Children and Families.

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