This past weekend’s Clear the Shelter event at the region’s animal shelters made me happy, of course. But I was also sad.
As a pet owner, I am glad more animals have homes. Yet, as the head of a nonprofit that works with youth who are homeless, it frustrates me that we do not treat our kids with the same exuberance and urgency.
We have a growing youth homelessness issue in Loudoun County. The issue may not be visible to most residents, but that does not mean homeless youth do not exist. In fact, here are real life examples of homelessness that we encounter daily:
-A young lady escaping a violent home;
-A young couple who was sleeping under a bush the last few weeks;
-A homeless couple who is trying to make a home in the woods;
-A client in the shelter as they wait for an opening in a group home with a long wait list;
-Three clients that were recently released from the adult detention center who are all now homeless;
-A young man sleeping on the streets because that is where he feels most safe;
-And a young lady who is staying with a young man she just met four weeks ago because she did not want to be alone in a hotel and could not return home.
To serve these young people whose lives have been marred by difficult circumstances and trauma, we have only one adult shelter, which is often overcrowded, meaning no available beds. Some are lucky to get put into a hotel. Others take to the streets or an open couch. The county does not have a halfway house, so those exiting the detention center are more likely to become repeat offenders or become homeless. Meanwhile, the county’s animal shelter is getting a $25 million renovation.
At a minimum, we need to put the same priority on our homeless youth problem. While we wait, we are starting a capital campaign to buy property to build a facility of support and self-empowerment to give these kids an opportunity for success.
Support works. One of our recently homeless kids received her license, and another started his second job. One learned to cook waffles from scratch – his favorite meal – and another has been clean for a year. Two are heading to college, while another recently found fairly stable housing.
We are hosting Harmonizing for Hope along with Washington Redskins Coach Jay Gruden, his wife Sherry and the Redskins to further raise funds for this property and other critical services to get these youth off the couches, in from the outside, out of the shelters and ready for adulthood. This karaoke-inspired fundraiser takes place on Aug. 30 at ChefScape in Leesburg. It's the perfect way to learn more and get involved. It's also a lot of fun.
Loudoun is a great county, but our struggling youth want to succeed. We can do better. Get involved, learn the facts and leave your legacy. Together, we can clear all the shelters.
Donna Fortier is the CEO and founder of Mobile Hope, which assists homeless and precariously housed people in Loudoun County.