Honoring Champions in the Fight Against Youth Homelessness

July 24, 2012

“The youth are not the problem; the system is.”

Against a backdrop of growing youth homelessness, the White House hosted the Champions of Change in the Fight against Child and Youth Homelessness on July 12, 2012, to recognize community leaders for their collaborative, innovative work on behalf of vulnerable children, teens and families.

The event, hosted jointly by the White House Office of Public Engagement and the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness was part of a weekly Champions of Change series sponsored by the White House to highlight community action in different sectors. The weekly "champions"—ranging from educators to entrepreneurs to local leaders—are honored for their work to strengthen their communities.

This week's event featured two panel discussions on youth homelessness and innovative solutions, which were moderated by Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan and Bryan Samuels, Commissioner for the Department of Health and Human Services, Administration on Children, Youth and Families.

As Secretary Donovan noted in his opening remarks, “youth homelessness is something that should never happen in America.” But it does, and at far too high a rate. Though it has proven difficult to measure the rate of homeless youth, the Department of Education estimates that during the 2009-2010 calendar year, over 900,000 students were homeless.

Sheriyln Adams, the executive director of Larkin Street Youth Services in San Francisco, was one of 13 "Champions" recognized at the event. Adams estimates that almost 6,000 youth find themselves homeless each year in San Francisco. It's a number she knows can be tackled only through innovative solutions and collaborations that focus on the systemic gaps that lead young people to become homeless.

It is not, Adams emphasized, a problem driven just by individual choices. It's a bigger, systemic issue: “The youth are not the problem; the system is," Adams said.

Tens of thousands of people across the country are doing important work to raise awareness of and combat youth homelessness. These 13 Champions of Change were chosen by a committee of White House, USICH, and other agency members, based on their collaborative work, dedication to diversity, innovation, commitment to sustainability, and strategic engagement with their communities.

They shared useful lessons from their careers spent improving the lives of children, youth, and families facing or at risk of homelessness. Among the approaches recognized:

  • CARLCarl Siciliano with the Ali Forney Center emphasized the comprehensive services they provide for LGBT homeless youth: outreach and drop-in services, an emergency shelter, and 30 transitional living beds that are complimented by volunteer life coaches with goals towards independence. LGBT youth comprise 40% of homeless youth, and that number is only growing. Siciliano voiced the great need of this population.


  • Lisa Stambolis, a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner, helped create a primary care clinic for homeless children. Understanding the importance of integrating direct service and advocacy, Lisa was instrumental in helping get legislation passed which would allow unaccompanied youth the right to consent their medical treatment.


  • SOLSol Flores, the Executive Director of La Casa Norte in Chicago, stressed the necessity of community partnerships in her work. La Casa Norte works closely with shelters, service provides, and various other public and private collaborative working groups to provide comprehensive care to homeless youth. She similarly observed the need for advocacy and service to work together, noting how the La Casa Norte had engaged formerly homeless youth in their advocacy efforts.

These champions serve as a cross section of the vital work occurring across the country to end youth homelessness.

Two years ago the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, a sponsor of the Champions of Change event, launched Opening Doors a road map for collective action to prevent and end homelessness. It sets the ambitious goal of ending homelessness for children, youth, and families by 2020. To do so, it calls upon community leaders and agencies to cooperate across sectors, and take a holistic method to serving children and youth.

These champions are helping to answer that call. Read more about their work here.


Hannah Lythe is policy assistant with the Forum for Youth Investment, SparkAction's managing partner. You can reach her at hannah[@]forumfyi.org.




Hannah Lythe