Earlier this month, 350 NCJW members and supporters from around the country including 9 members of the JCAST Chicago Steering Committee spent an amazing three days in Washington learning, advocating and raising our voices on behalf of others at Washington Institute, NCJW’s premier public policy event. Although I have been a member of NCJW for over a decade (and a staff member for nearly as long), this was my first time attending, but it won’t be my last.
Washington Institute attendees spend three intensive days learning about important issues from experts, network with life-minded advocates, gain skills to promote change, and speak to decision makers during lobby visits on Capitol Hill. This year, we were trained on the following four issues:
- Ensuring qualified federal judicial nominees receive timely votes
- Supporting the Voting Rights Advancement Act (HR 2867/S 1659)
- Supporting the Runaway and Homeless Youth and Trafficking Prevention Act (HR 1779/S 262)
- Supporting the Each Woman Act of 2015 (HR 2972)
Although all four of these issues are vital to the well-being of us all, I want to focus on the Runaway and Homeless Youth and Trafficking Prevention Act.
For over four decades, the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act (RHYA) has provided three types of federal grants to help communities deliver life-saving and supportive services to homeless, runaway, and disconnected youth. The Runaway and Homeless Youth and Trafficking Prevention Act (RHYTPA), S 262/ HR 1779, introduced in the Senate in January 2015 and the House of Representatives in April 2015, would reauthorize and strengthen these critical programs by collecting human trafficking data, adding a nondiscrimination clause that mirrors federal regulations, and increasing the temporary length of stay for homeless youth.
Introduced by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Susan Collins (R-ME) in the Senate and Reps. John Yarmuth (D-KY) and Dave Reichert (R-WA) in the House, these bi-partisan bills would reauthorize and expand RHYA’s three community grant programs in several ways. (1) The length of stay in the Basic Center Program, which provides temporary housing with crisis intervention services to minors, would increase from 21 to 30 days. (2) The Transitional Living Program, which offers longer-term residential services for older homeless youth, would be required to provide suicide prevention services, referrals to mental health care services (if trafficking victims), and statistics of human trafficked youth. (3) The Street Outreach Program would provide crisis intervention and service referrals to runaway and homeless youth at street drop-in centers.
Runaway and homeless youth programs provide vital services to runaway, homeless, and disconnected youth. This modest investment has laid the foundation for a national system of services for our most vulnerable young people. Youth who runaway or are homeless are especially vulnerable to becoming victims of trafficking and sexual exploitation. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates that 1 in 5 of the 11,800 runaways reported in 2015 was a likely sex trafficking victims. Programs aimed at homeless and runaway youth are critical to helping youth find stable, sustainable housing. In 2014, over 85% of youth exited these programs safely and effectively; in 2013, 72% of youth in RHYA temporary housing reunited with their families.
In our visits, we found that at least one Congressperson’s Chief of Staff was unaware that this bill was different from the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act signed into law in 2015. Please contact your elected officials and urge them to learn more about the RHYTPA, become a co-sponsor of the bill, and urge their colleagues to do the same. You can reach your US Senators and Member of Congress via the United States Capitol switchboard at (202) 224-3121. A switchboard operator will connect you directly with the office you request.
Your power as a constituent cannot be underestimated. Representative Bobby Rush is now a cosponsor of the RHYTPA after Lynne Oberman (NCJW South Cook president) and her fellow NCJW South Cook section members met with his staff. He signed on the day they visited. Remember one voice can make a difference.
NCJW Chicago North Shore Board member Tina Cantrell summed up Washington Institute with some powerful thoughts: “We live in a world of hurt and need. We can accept that and sit back, doing nothing, or we can take a stand, often courageously and surrounded by risk-taking, to try to make the world just a little better. Fighting injustice bit-by-bit speaks to my conscience and my Jewish values. I have respect for Tikun Olam, repairing the world, and although my actions seem small compared to other women’s efforts in NCJW and elsewhere, I believe we can make a difference when working together.”
Thanks for standing with us to prevent youth from becoming trafficked.
~~Melissa Prober, Communications Director, NCJW Chicago North Shore and JCAST Chicago