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National Network for Youth 2010 Symposium

Washington, DC - January 25, 2010

Good morning. Thank you, Vicki, and, thank you all for your hard work. For 35 years, the National Network for Youth and its partners have looked out for our most vulnerable youths, young men and women who often have nowhere else to turn, but who can, with help and guidance, turn their lives around and achieve great things.

This work is incredibly important, not just for these adolescents, but also for our country. When these young men and women find stable homes and get the support they need to become productive citizens, we all benefit.

So I want to thank you. And on behalf of President Obama and his entire administration, I want to tell you that we‘re committed to working with you to make sure every youth has, not just a roof over their head, but a safe and loving home where they can reach their full potential.

Before I talk about some of the steps we’re taking to achieve that vision, I want to give you a brief update on some of our efforts to help the people of Haiti. As you all know, two weeks ago, Haiti was struck by a powerful earthquake that devastated the capital, Port Au Prince, and left an estimated 200,000 people dead and hundreds of thousands injured or homeless.

Since then, the federal government has been working nonstop with foreign governments, NGOs, and Haitian officials to save lives and get food, water, and medical care as quickly as possible to the people who need it. We know that almost one out of every two Haitians is under the age of 18, so many of these people we’re trying to help are children.

Every day, we have more medical staff, more support staff, and more supplies on the ground. We’re airlifting food and water. We’re distributing handheld radios. We’re setting up makeshift hospitals. And as President Obama has said, we are in this from the long haul – not just to help Haiti recover, but also to help them rebuild.

For those of you whose hearts have been aching for the Haitian people over the last few days, I do want to report one hopeful sign. In the last two weeks, medical personnel from my department have seen thousands of patients. These are mostly men and women who were hurt during the earthquake. But our HHS medical teams have also been delivering babies. So even at this sad time, we’re seeing inspiring evidence of Haiti’s resilience.

The scenes that we’ve seen in the last two weeks on television are shocking. And at times like these, we’re reminded how fortunate we are to live in a country that’s so stable and prosperous. But while the scale of the crisis might be foreign to us, the specifics are not, especially to people in this room.

Here in the United States, despite our wealth, millions of people go without the medical care they need each year. Millions of people go hungry. Millions of people sleep on a park bench or under a railway bridge or on a cot in a shelter because they have nowhere else to go.

Of this last group, over a million and a half of them are just kids. The best estimate we have is that 1.6 million youths between the ages of 12 and 17 slept on the street last year. Some of them ran away. Some of them got kicked out by their parents. Almost all of them had more to worry about than finding a place to sleep.

We know, for example, that about half of school-aged homeless children have witnessed domestic violence. We know that runaway youths are three times more likely to have major depression or post-traumatic stress syndrome. And we know that when a child has no home, these problems can get worse.

That’s because a home is more than just a place to go at the end of the day. Without a home, there’s no roof to protect you from the weather. There’s no bed where you can rest. There’s no shower to help you maintain good hygiene. There’s no refrigerator for you to store healthy food, or any food. There’s no door to keep away predators. Most of all, there’s often no family to look after you.

So it’s no surprise that homeless youths are more likely to suffer from lack of sleep, skin infections, and malnutrition. One study of runaway youths in Hollywood found that they were 100 times more likely than their peers to trade sex for food, money, or protection. This sexual activity has serious consequences. Homeless youths are 16 times more likely to be diagnosed with HIV. And in one study, half of all homeless adolescent girls reported becoming pregnant on the streets.

For most of you, these numbers are familiar. But the challenge for all of us is to not let familiarity become acceptance. These are kids who should be going to sports’ practices and school dances. They should be thinking about where they’re going to go to college in four years, not wondering where they’re going to sleep tonight.

Helping these young people reach their full potential is a goal that stretches across my entire department. All of you know our work through FYSB (fis-bee). Last year, we provided Street Outreach, Basic Center, and Transitional Living grants to over 750 programs, which together serve over a million kids each year. We also operate the National Runaway Switchboard, which received more than 125,000 calls last year from youth in crisis and the adults and friends who care about them.

These programs work. Of the more than 40,000 youth who entered basic centers or received intensive preventive services, more than 80 percent returned to a private residence. Of the nearly 4,000 youths who entered transitional living programs, more than 85 percent exited to a safe living situation.

But as I said earlier, we also recognize that these young men and women’s needs often go way beyond housing. That’s why we fund mentoring programs for the children of prisoners and other at-risk groups. It’s why we have programs through our Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to provide evidence-based services to homeless youth struggling with behavioral health disorders.

It’s why we fund the John H Chafee Foster Care Independence Program, which helps young men and women in our foster care system get a strong start to the rest of their lives. It’s why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention support groups like the National Network for Youth that promote healthy sexual behaviors.

It’s why we’re busily working to implement a new $110 million teen pregnancy initiative that will support evidence-based, medically-accurate programs that have been shown to reduce teen pregnancies, which we know can close off many opportunities for young women. And it’s why we’re also working to make sure every American child and adolescent gets the health care they need.

As you know, one of the first bills President Obama signed after he took office was the CHIP Reauthorization, which extended health care coverage to millions of previously uninsured kids. What we knew from past experience is that many kids don’t get signed up even though they quality. Maybe their families didn’t know they were eligible or the rules were too complicated or maybe the kids didn’t live with their families any more.

So we’re spending $100 million on a national as well as community-level outreach campaign to try to reach these kids and make sure they can get the care they need. We think there are five million kids out there who are eligible for coverage right now and I think we can find them all within five years.

Two principles guide all the work we do: the importance of involving families and the importance of involving young people themselves. Now I know that the families you deal with usually don’t look like the Cosby show. They’re not the ideal we see on TV. But the best evidence we have says that these kinds of interventions are most effective when families are involved.

We also share the National Network for Youth’s belief that people who have the best ideas about how to help youths are their peers. I’ll give you just one example of how we try to incorporate this principle into our activities. We have a program called Youth MOVE, which is short for Motivating Others through Voices of Experience. This group brings together young people who have real life experience with our juvenile justice system, our mental health system, and our child welfare system. Having successfully, navigated these systems, they now serve as role models for other youths and advocates for incorporating youth input into our public policy.

So part of the reason I was so excited to come speak here today is that I knew there were going to be a lot of youth leaders in the audience. And I want to encourage you to keep working with your community organizations to help your peers reach their full potential. I know a lot of you are probably finding out that being a leader isn’t easy. It takes a lot of hard work to turn your good ideas into good results. There are lots of meetings. Not all of them are as fun as this one. But I want to encourage you all to stick with it because you can make a huge difference.

Now I’ve talked today about the range of needs that homeless and runaway youths face. And I’ve also talked about the range of services my department provides. I know that many of you also wear multiple hats, serving as advocates, caretakers, real estate agents, and career counselors at the same time. But just because all these services are available doesn’t mean that youths automatically get connected with all the services they need. And so if there’s one thing we think we can do even better, it’s making sure all our departments and agencies and programs work together so that we can serve the full needs of the young men and women that come to us.

We’re doing this through interdepartmental partnerships like our Interagency Council on Homelessness, our Interagency Working Group on Youth, and our Juvenile Justice Coordinating Council, with whom I’m meeting later today. And what we’re trying to do with these groups is make sure these meetings are not just opportunities for everyone to go around the room and say what they’re doing, but opportunities for all of us to ask what we can do working together to help more kids achieve success.

I’ll give you just one example of the type of cooperation that could have big benefits for at-risk youth. Right now, the Department of Housing and Urban Development awards what are called Family Unification Program vouchers to former foster youth to help them get housing. With effective partnerships at the local level, we can combine these vouchers with the supports provided to young people in our Independent Living programs. With a more comprehensive approach, I know that more of these young people will make it through school or be successful in the workforce.

This is what some people call the “no wrong door” approach. We want homeless and runaway youths to be able to enter our system at any point, whether it’s talking to an administrator at school or to a mental health counselor or showing up at one of our Basic Centers and be able to get all the support that they need. Anytime we see someone, we should be asking: is this person signed up for health insurance programs? Do they need drug counseling? Could they benefit from having a mentor? In other words, we want to take a holistic approach to supporting adolescents, just as we have for school-age children.

So that’s our plan for the coming months. You’re doing the incredible work in communities throughout the country. We want to o work closely with you, and I want to thank you one more time for your incredible commitment to these young Americans. I also want to highlight one person in particular who’s here today. He’s someone with a lot of experience in the non-profit world. He’s started his own foundation. He’s equally well-known among Washington power brokers and in communities across the country.

I’m talking about Zach Bonner, who’s the main attraction this morning. I’m just the warm-up act. And like a lot of you, I’ve read about Zach and been inspired by his story. As many of you know, Zach’s latest effort is walking across the country to draw attention to homeless and runaway youths. Now I’m a little disappointed that he’s taking a Southern route and skipping my home state of Kansas. But I got over it, and today we brought a bag of supplies for Zach to use on his trip. We’ve got a water bottle and a pedometer and a bunch of other supplies to help Zack on his journey.

I’ve also heard that Zack is a prolific tweeter and blogger. I’m not a tweeter myself, but I do blog occasionally for the department, so we’d also like to invite Zach to do a guest blog post on one of our websites if he can find the time. We wish him good luck, and we look forward to seeing him back in Washington when he finishes his trip.

The last point I want to make today is that part of what makes what Zach’s doing so important is his message. But another part of it is his example. It reminds us that our young people are capable of doing extraordinary things if they have a loving home and get the right support from caring adults. Not everyone is going to walk across the country, but all children have extraordinary potential, and that potential doesn’t disappear just because they don’t have a home. It just takes some additional steps to help them reach their dreams and goals.

So thanks again for all your hard work. Thanks for inviting me to come visit with you today. And I look forward to talking more in the months to come.