It’s the holiday season.  Most of us are going to parties,  buying and wrapping  presents and planning warm, cozy gatherings with family and friends. But for homeless  youth,  those under the age of 18 who lack parental, foster or institutional care, the holiday season can be a nightmare.

Experts disagree about the exact number of homeless youth because they can be difficult to identify and count. High school students, in particular, often try to hide their homelessness and stay under the radar because they feel embarrassed.     However, in its most recent report about this population,  the  Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention of the U.S. Department of Justice estimated that there are 1.6 million homeless and runaway youth in this country. Most are  between the ages of 15-17 years old . They are equally divided between males and females.  About a third are black and studies show that almost half identify as lesbian, gay, bi-sexual or transgender (LGBT).  LBGT youth are at particular risk of homelessness because they are so often rejected by their families, schools and communities.  But regardless of  who they are, on any night, in any season– including Christmas– these young people are sleeping on our streets, in public places or  abandoned buildings, in emergency shelters or prevailing on the kindness of friends or strangers, for a bed.

There are a lot of reasons why young people end up homeless.  Some leave home after years of neglect, physical and sexual abuse, strained  family relationships, the addiction of family members and family economic problems. Youth can also become homeless when they are discharged from foster care or other institutional settings with no housing or income support.  As if this situation isn’t bad enough, organizations that focus on homeless youth say the problem is getting worse. The National Center for Homeless Education (NCHE)  reports that between 2007 and the 2011-2012 school year, homelessness among students of all grades, rose 72 percent.  The National Runaway Safeline, (NRS), a nonprofit communication system for runaway and homeless youth, says that since 2009 they have seen a 25 percent increase in crisis contacts from homeless youth. According to Keven Ryan, president of Covenant House,  the largest privately funded charity in the country providing  services to homeless youth, all 16 Covenant House shelters across the country are seeing more youth seeking shelter and a bed.  ” We are rolling out cots to accommodate kids,” he says. “Kids are competing with each other for bed space.”

Advocates for the  homeless point to the recent recession as a major reason for this  growth.  Barbara, Duffield, Policy Director of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth says, “the recession isn’t over for America’s poorest families.” Family economic stress can lead to strain between youth and parents and act to “push” youth out of the home.  In fact, NRS reports that over the past three years, there has been a 15 percent increase in youth who cite economics as the reason for them contacting the organization.

Why should we care about homeless young people during our holiday festivities? Because the consequences for these young people, and for society generally, are so devastating. Homeless youth are at a higher risk for physical abuse, sexual exploitation, involvement in the justice system,  dropping out of school, mental health disabilities,  substance abuse and even death.  Approximately 5,000 homeless youth die every year due to assault, illness and suicide.  Youth homelessness and its consequences  are not just problems for those involved, but for society in general and the cost to society is high.  States spend approximately $5.7 billion each year to incarcerate youth for a non-violent offense such as homelessness.  Further, the problems  and barriers these youth face, clearly hinder their ability to become contributing, successful  members of their families and society.  If we  don’t  help them while they are young, they may well become  tomorrow’s chronically homeless adults.

The Runaway and Homeless Youth Act (RHYA) is the only federal law that supports services to  homeless and runaway youth. RHYA  is   funded through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and provides:  street outreach (education services,  mental and physical health treatment, counseling and referrals); basic living centers  (temporary shelter,  counseling, family reunification and aftercare services and transitional living (longer term housing and supportive services).  These are the types of services advocates say benefit homeless and runaway youth–programs that meet immediate needs first and then help address other issues to get  lives back on track.

However, according to the National Network for Youth (NN4Y),  programs funded by the RHYA are facing a tremendous unmet need with insufficient resources.  NN4Y reports that between  2009-2012,   programs  had to turn away 37,000 young people who were seeking shelter and that  funding for the RHYA  has been basically flat, around $115 million, since FY 2010.   Ryan of Covenant House,  railed against the five percent (sequestration) cut to  RHYA in the FY 13 budget.   In his April 2013 blog, Ryan called this action, “balancing the budget on the backs of our most desperate young people.”     NN4Y is recommending a $128 million appropriation for RHYA programs in FY14.  The president’s budget proposes $118 million, including three million for a study of the prevalence, needs and characteristics of homeless youth– something which has never been conducted.  According to Darla Bardine, policy director for NN4Y, advocates for homeless youth are hopeful about the potential funding for this badly needed study.   However, she says “If history is any guide, we won’t see the level of funding for RHYA  that we have requested and believe is necessary to support this population.”

Kevin Ryan is a Christian.  He thinks  about homeless kids  a lot during this time of year.  “This is the season when we celebrate the birth of Jesus and still today, there is no room in the inn for these youth.  What does this say about how seriously we take the spirit of Christmas?”

What indeed?