Judith Dittman, Executive Director, Alternative House, Northern Virginia
Alternative House is a nonprofit organization that serves at-risk, runaway and homeless youth in Northern Virginia. Last year we worked with more than 2,000 young people. We provided safe shelter to 200 runaway or homeless youth between the ages of 13 and 24. Homeless youth are not like homeless adults. They often are homeless because they believe the street is a safer option than their family home. They “couch surf” going from friend to friend trying to find a safe place to stay. Too often they end up trading sex for food and shelter. The current U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD’s) definition of homelessness excludes these young people.
One of Alternative House’s programs, the Homeless Youth Initiative, provides rental assistance, case management and educational and occupational supports to homeless unaccompanied high school students. Many of these students do not fit HUD’s rigid definition but clearly fit the true meaning of being homeless. “John’s” parents lost their jobs during the recession and their marriage fell apart. With their home in foreclosure they left the area leaving John behind trying to finish high school. He bounced from friend to friend with his grades plummeting until a school social worker referred him to our Homeless Youth Initiative. We were able to help John maintain stable housing and find part-time work, which allowed him to remain in school and graduate on time. He has since gone on to community college and full-time employment. John did not “technically” meet the HUD definition of homelessness but he met ours.