Audra McDonald Every homeless child is more than a statistic. Our treatment of them matters.

You have to learn to see the whole person and not just their current situation.
Audra McDonald
Audra McDonaldAllison Michael Orenstein
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By Audra McDonald

America has wealth, but it is distributed unevenly: The upper echelon has most of the wealth, and there are so many people who are impoverished. That includes, as of the 2015-2016 school year, almost 1.5 million children.

There are so many factors that lead to youth homelessness, from impoverished families to aging out of foster care to being kicked out of their family homes. In some of the latter cases, kids come out to their parents or guardians as LGBTQ, and they are tossed out of their homes. There's a million reasons that a child might end up homeless, and they all need help — a safe place to land, and an environment of support, and love and guidance that gets them on the right track.

For the children who are homeless merely because they are LGBTQ, because they have been completely ostracized from their families or society, they face unique challenges in both surviving and protecting themselves. We find that they sometimes turn to, or are enticed into, prostitution or into drug use as a means of physical and emotional survival. And sometimes, the drug use comes out of a need to medicate in order to endure the emotional turmoil of being told that who you are is fundamentally wrong and abhorrent.

I got involved with the Covenant House, which provides housing and other support services to homeless, runaway and trafficked kids, when I was doing the show "Lady Day" about Billie Holiday back in 2014. As a child, Billie Holiday was raped, forced into prostitution, and was homeless. I started thinking about the fact that if perhaps there had been a safe space for her to land, then perhaps she wouldn't have had to deal with some of her demons.

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It's customary to give opening night gifts on a show, and so, when I started thinking what would be an appropriate place to give a donation, I remembered the Covenant House, which is fairly close to the Theater District.

I walked down to the Covenant House in between my matinee and evening performance on one Saturday to give them a check. But when I walked in, there were only two security guards there and they said, "Well, it's the weekend, so we don't have anyone on staff that could take a check from you. Our weekend staff is just with the kids here, but we'll look around and see what we can find."

And as they were making some calls and chatting with me, a young kid came in. He looked a little disheveled, and he had a trash bag that had a few items in it, I guess. And the two security guards who had been chatting with me in a lighthearted way suddenly jumped into action, as if they became Batman and Robin. They said to him, "Hey man, it's OK, we got you. Why don't you come over here, come sit down." And they helped bring this kid into their safe space, and set him on a journey toward where he needed to be.

That's what the Covenant House does. It starts with the immediate sort of triage of, "What do we need to get you safe and healthy?" And then, from there, we can get them into a Rite of Passage Program where they have apartments or housing with us, we get them job training, we help them finish their high school diplomas, we have Moms and Babies to take care of a lot of these kids who have kids of their own. The goal is to get them on the track to success and get them out into the world.

A lot of people, especially in places like New York or San Francisco, they are judgmental or rude when they see homeless people or disheveled kids on the street. But it makes such a difference to people to just be treated with respect. The Covenant House president, Kevin Ryan, says all the time that the least interesting thing about these kids is that they are homeless. They are remarkable souls, each and every one of them — diamonds that have just been discarded for whatever reason. And this organization takes them, polishes them up and gives them the strength, support and love that they need to discover what their dreams are and do what they want to do.

You have to see the soul and see the whole person, and not just say, "This is just another statistic," feed a kid and wash your hands off them. Everyone is worthy. Everyone matters. They are who they are, and it's a beautiful, wonderful thing. As a society, we need everyone to find out all that they are, and achieve all of that potential that they have.

As told to THINK editor Megan Carpentier, edited and condensed for clarity.