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Originally published Thursday, May 14, 2009 at 3:35 PM

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Save Seattle homeless youth now, not later

About 1,000 Seattle youth are living on the street every night, write guest columnists Victoria Wagner and Melinda Giovengo. If these youth aren't helped off the streets today, many will still be there long after this recession is behind us.

Special to The Times

THEY sleep in shelters. In the streets. In cars. Vulnerable places that none of us with a roof over our heads would consider permanent housing. And they are young.

In Seattle, 1,000 of these youth are on the street every night. In 2008, our local agency served more than 12,000 meals to youth in Seattle. Without those meals, those many young people would have gone hungry that day.

Sadly, there's starting to be nothing special about Seattle across the country. In fact, the U.S. Conference of Mayors cited an average 12-percent increase in homelessness in 2008. A recent report stated that 1 in 50 children in the United States are homeless.

Our struggling economy means there's a strong likelihood even more kids — not to mention families and adults — are out on streets across the nation tonight.

Just last month, The Washington Post reported schools in Fairfax County, Va., one of the wealthiest counties in the nation, had seen a 20-percent rise in homeless students.

Getting these young people off the streets and into safe housing is in all our best interests. It is cheaper and easier to treat them today than it will be down the road. The longer people are homeless, the more difficult to transition them to stable living.

Today, the American mood is dichotomous. On one hand, the recession that dominates our front pages, news hours and dinner-table discussions have many of us hunkered down. We're waiting. We're keeping closer track of each dollar we spend. And that's a natural response. The danger is that it will harden into an every-man-for-himself attitude.

On the other hand, we have a long-standing American pride in helping others, stoked by President Obama's call to service. Our wellspring of compassion runs deep, and our urge to act in the face of disaster is strong. This spirit must prevail.

Children are not on the streets as a first choice. Of those kids in Seattle, many are physically or sexually abused, or just not wanted at home. Reports show significant mental-health problem diagnoses before taking up residence on the street.

We need to reach these children — if not out of concern for fellow human beings, then out of self-interest. If we don't help them off the streets today, many will still be there long after this recession is behind us.

"Hunkering down" doesn't have to mean turning a blind eye. It can also mean opening our eyes, paying attention and creating a sustainable community that supports each other. And also supports its own future — through its youth.

Victoria Wagner, left, is chief executive officer of the National Network For Youth. Melinda Giovengo is executive director of Seattle's YouthCare — A National Network for Youth member agency.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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