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Straight from the street: What it’s like to be young and homeless

Melissa Harrs-Perry gathered a panel to discuss the problem of homelessness. Several of her panelists spoke from hard experience.
/ Source: Melissa Harris Perry

Melissa Harrs-Perry gathered a panel to discuss the problem of homelessness. Several of her panelists spoke from hard experience.

Host Melissa Harris-Perry discussed last Saturday how the poverty epidemic affects our nation’s homeless youth, joined by a panel of activists–three of whom had been homeless themselves.

They discussed this week’s 2013 NYC Youth Count initiative. During the youth count, volunteers created an overnight staff at drop-in centers in various boroughs to keep a tally of homeless youth. On the same night, the Homeless Outreach Population Estimate (HOPE) was conducted, a count of every homeless person living unsheltered in the city. “I think it’s a good effort, but I find there are shortcomings,” said Ralph De Costa Nunez of the Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness.  “This issue is much bigger than any count we’re going to do,” he said.

Guest Derrick Cobb spoke about the “pride factor” that inhibits homeless young people from coming forward to seek assistance–and he spoke from experience. ”We spend most our time…trying to put up that presence as if nothing’s wrong…and that’s a huge part of the problem,” he said, recalling the five tough years he spent in that situation. Like Cobb, student Eboni Boykin rose from poverty. “Staying focused is sort of all you can do,” said Boykin. She enrolled at Columbia University despite spending her childhood in shelters. Her motivation? There was nothing other than schoolwork for her to do at the shelters to occupy her time, and remembered, ”I pretty much had no choice but to be focused and set a goal for myself.”

Jimmy Ramirez, current Georgetown student and former homeless youth, relied on support from others as well as his own determination. He described the people who helped assuage his feelings of inadequacy in order to succeed. Harris-Perry noted how important it is for children to have a champion on their side, reminding her panel of the hope that President Obama spoke of in his 2013 inaugural address:

“We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American; she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.”

The president’s speech was inspiring, but in a conversation with Harris-Perry, Congresswoman Sinema pointed out  that homelessness for children is not only a worry for the poor. Raised a middle-class daughter of an attorney, Sinema was homeless for five years after her prominent father lost his job. “We went from middle-class to poor almost overnight,” she said.

Former New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Demos, agreed that the problem is pervasive across many demographics, and is “certainly not diminishing.” He said, “It’s a chaotic way to live, and we really need to be paying much more attention to it.”

See more of our conversation below.