By Dr. Chad Audi
You may have heard about the tragedy that unfolded in New Orleans, Louisiana over this holiday season. Eight young homeless people died in a fire at an abandoned wood-framed warehouse. They had sought shelter from the unusually cold weather and began burning trash and wood to stay warm. The fire raged out of control, trapping the young squatters. It was the deadliest New Orleans fire in nearly four decades.
It’s believed that the victims were in their late teens and early twenties. They were described by others as being accomplished musicians or artists. How tragic! A recent report by the Center for American Progress estimates there are 1.6 to 2.8 million homeless youth in the United States, ages 12 through 24. Many are homeless because of abuse, neglect, and family conflict. Another tragic occurrence!
New Orleans officials say homelessness — especially among young people — has increased since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005. On any given night, as many as 3,000 people are estimated to be living on the streets. Shelters can provide only about 800 beds. And homeless agencies in New Orleans say many young adults and teenagers tend to avoid shelters for numerous reasons. Many would rather stay out in the cold than seek social services.
In my experience at the Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries (DRMM), I find that sometimes the homeless don’t want to abide by an agency’s rules, or they feel uncomfortable going to a shelter, or pride prevents them from seeking help. Another problem is the lack of affordable housing. The need is larger than ever considering the record number of foreclosures and the economic crisis we have faced. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of vacant, blighted properties can be found across the country and often are used by the homeless as a haven from the weather and dangerous streets.
The tragedy in New Orleans is heartbreaking. We should never lose young people — or anyone — in this manner. Everyone — citizens, the government, non-profits, and businesses — must step up and address the issues that are leading to increased homelessness in this country.