Cody is now 25 and has struggled with homelessness and mental health challenges. “Living on the streets takes its toll mentally,” he says. “Not knowing where your next meal is coming from, or where you are going to sleep, you deal with this every single day. I just kept moving to stay safe, but you get depressed, and suicidal thoughts come into your head.”

Maybe you didn’t notice Cody on your way to work back when he was 19, or it didn’t occur to you that this young man would be homeless. Or maybe the people you pass in the Port Authority, or Penn Station, or the subway today who appear to be homeless, look older. Due to increasing and very visible numbers of people experiencing homelessness and, particularly, those with mental illness, the homelessness crisis has our collective attention again. And as well-meaning debates are back on the front burner in New York and other major cities about what to do about the homelessness crisis in the short term, we already know what steps to take to decrease and eventually end the homelessness crisis in the long term.

We need the collective will to act. We need to humanely and compassionately address the needs of people with mental illness living on the streets. At the same time, we must act now to prevent a generation of young people from that very same destiny.

People walk past a panhandler on 34th Street on Dec.  9, 2022 in New York City.

Each year across the country, approximately 4.2 million young people aged 13-25 experience some form of homelessness, with millions more who are housing insecure. All of them have experienced significant trauma, violence and/or exploitation on the streets. More than half of them disclose a mental health challenge, ranging from depression and anxiety to serious mental illness.

Many youth experiencing homelessness are individuals of color and have experienced the traumatic impacts of racism. A third identify as LGBTQ+ and have experienced rejection at home, stigma, discrimination and physical harm, all of which takes a toll on their mental health. In many cases, their mental health issues have gone undiagnosed. These young people are at the highest risk of spending their lives on the streets.

In the short term, we stand with those who believe that real-time support from mental health professionals on the streets, better training for police on the front lines, more on-site treatment on the streets and in mental health facilities, and safeguarding the basic human rights of all people experiencing homelessness should be immediately prioritized. And, of course, more generally, we need broad primary prevention services that provide access to housing, mental health services and economic opportunity for vulnerable individuals and families.

But there is a critical opportunity that lies in between, and that is ensuring that we prevent the current population of homeless youth from having an entire lifetime on the streets.

We must recognize the deep impact trauma has had on youth experiencing homelessness and the centrality of building mental health resilience to help them move forward with their lives. One of the biggest challenges is identifying youth most in need of mental health support. Many youth experiencing homelessness are understandably initially reluctant to disclose such mental health challenges due to the stigma around mental illness.

Equipping those who are closest to at-risk youth with the skills to recognize and respond to mental health crises is one way to work towards creating environments where they can thrive. Covenant House, in partnership with the NFL Players Association, has provided Youth Mental Health First Aid training to staff who are on the frontlines working with homeless youth in New York and multiple other locations across the US

Covenant House conducts mental health screenings and assessments, provides individual counseling and group sessions for young people, and we help young people develop strategies to manage their trauma and move forward in their lives. This work is central to homelessness prevention and intervention.

We need to fully scale the approaches that we already know work. Meeting the immediate needs of young people for food, clothing and shelter. Providing education and employment services that set them on a path for success. Providing mental health services and treatment so that they can not only survive but thrive. And delivering all of these services through a trauma-informed lens that recognizes their humanity, aspirations, skills and talents.

Cody received all of these services and is now working and living successfully in his own apartment. But there are so many more young people who aren’t so lucky. We must act now before they become the next generation of people experiencing long-term homelessness and reach the point of no return.

Cargill is the director of player wellness of the NFL Players Association. Farber is executive director of Covenant House New York.

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