On July 16, 2019, YMCA Youth & Family Services staff David Baker testified before Congress at the House Committee on Education and Labor, Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Human Services to support the reauthorization of the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act. The full hearing is available here, and he shares his experience below in honor of National Runaway Prevention Month. To learn more about our Transitional Living Programs, visit ymca.org/yfs.
In the weeks before the hearing, I spent time contemplating what exactly should be shared in that space. I decided that it would be key to highlight the cycle of trauma and hardship that comes with intergenerational poverty. I wanted to use my own story to exemplify how difficult it is for those living in destitution to escape the fate that many of them were born into.
My family has never known housing stability. In 2011, when I was 16 years old, I realized that there just weren’t enough resources for my single mother to cover my basic necessities, so I ran away. I traveled to family or friends in different states and eventually settled in San Diego where I was homeless for 5 years. During my time as a homeless youth, I would use my relationships to meet my needs. For example, I would sleep at many different friends’ houses to hide the fact that I didn’t have a place of my own to sleep. This method of survival sustained me until I was accepted into a transitional living program through YMCA Youth and Family Services in 2017. My time in the program was spent attaining degrees in business and sociology.
The morning of the hearing, I took a moment to reflect on my journey and the importance of showcasing my expertise on the topic of youth homelessness. I was a bit nervous because I knew that youth in my community were going to be watching their role model speak, and I wanted to make them proud. Any feeling of anxiety or fear left my body once I accepted that my presence at this committee would be monumental simply because I made it; I survived the storm and lived to share the story. To some, this was just another congressional hearing but to me, it was history in the making.
During the hearing, I spoke about some of the causes that force youth to leave home, and how systems could be better coordinated to find and meet the needs of those youth. My passion and firsthand knowledge filled the room and I heard my words of wisdom echoing off the walls almost as if they were actually meant for my ears and no one else’s. In my final words to the U.S. House of Representatives’ Education & Labor Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Human Services I asked for one simple thing: make success a possibility for every youth, because they deserve it.
Days after the hearing I was still receiving emails from my network across the nation about the excellent job I had done. My university presented me with a scholarship that will help fund my education all the way through my master’s program. I was also given the very prestigious “Youth Leader of the Year” award by a leading youth policy advocacy organization in my county. All of this recognition felt amazing, but what feels better is the chance to show the world what youth are capable of when given the resources to grow and thrive.