News Column

Filmmaker: Youth homelessness rampant everywhere

August 16, 2014

By Janae Francis, Standard-Examiner, Ogden, Utah

Aug. 16--"What if everywhere you went, people treated you as if they wished you weren't there?"

That question is a central message that Rotimi Rainwater, of Los Angeles, shares in his upcoming documentary about homeless youth in the United States, titled "Lost in America."

The project is the latest in a list of roughly a dozen documentaries on various issues about which Rainwater has sought to enlighten the public.

Rainwater visited Salt Lake City last month during the Pioneer Day celebration.

What he found, he said, was that Utah has nothing to celebrate when it comes to how homeless youth are treated in this state.

"As of now, I don't think Utah has a shelter for youth under the age of 18," he said. "Utah is one of those states that literally, if you are under the age of 18, you have to be on the streets."

And he said Utah's numbers of children being sexually trafficked are high.

"People who live in Utah don't even know there is such a big problem," he said. "I know it's a major center for sexual trafficking. If you look at all the massage parlors around there, 90 percent of the girls are forced into that."

When told of the Standard-Examiner's effort to raise awareness and funds to fight youth homelessness, Rainwater said he hadn't heard of another such project anywhere in the country.

And he's visited a dozen cities already, and made hundreds of contacts, including friending hundreds of homeless youth on Facebook. He said he's found that homeless youth will forgo a lot of conveniences to stay connected when and where they can.

Rainwater's upcoming film is billed as an in-depth and unoffending look at youth homelessness.

"These are stories of those who have been greeted by a nation who no longer wants them," says a teaser he's made for the film. "These are the stories of those who are lost in America."

Rainwater is not sure when the film will be released. He continues to fundraise to pay for various trips he is making to interview youth and program supporters throughout the country.

From what he's seen, Rainwater said Utah could do a lot to change the conditions of young people who leave home, often because they can't stay or their home ceases to exist or to be safe.

"The kids we saw there, it's heartbreaking," he said. "You've got kids all over the place with no place to go."

And Rainwater disputes a belief among some advocates in the state who believe youth form "families" who live together in abandoned barns or similar places.

He said the youth he's seen have to travel to find resources and live in desperate, often unbelievable, circumstances, which society in general has refused to see.

"They look for help," he said. "They say 'I can't go home, please help.' ... The truth is nobody truly wants them there."

Instead, he said people see laziness and drug addiction and turn their heads.

"Most kids who are on the streets who have a drug problem, didn't have a drug problem before they ran away," he said. "They learn this through our culture. These kids are on the streets, wanting to take drugs to deal with the pain. They have realized they have no place to go and no one to care for them."

And Rainwater said he has discovered that although some places in the United States have a reputation of doing better for homeless youth, when you look closely, you find out that youth still struggle there.

"There is no oasis in America that treats youth any better than any other place," he said.

"Portand, Oregon, is a big hub, just because it's really beautiful, he said. "All the youth I talk to say Portland doesn't treat them any better."

He said if he could pick one place as an overall shining example, he would pick Seattle, because of the understanding of the people there.

But even in that location, there are huge problems, he said, especially with an attitude of "not in my backyard."

"In America, if the government isn't using one of their old buildings, according to Title Five of Homeless Youth Act, they are supposed to give that over to homeless youth," he said.

However, even when people are willing to run a youth homeless facility and a building is found, such arrangements sometimes are held up in court.

"In ... a couple of places in the Seattle area, instead of allowing hundreds of homeless youth to have safe places to sleep, they've been fighting it and taking it to court for years," he said.

And while many people in the United States believe Canada does a better job with homeless youth, the reverse is true there, he said..

People there have told Rainwater that Americans do better with homeless youth.

He said it appears that many people think the youth are being served somewhere else, and they aren't.

"You are homeless," he said. "There are not enough beds. You can't be in a public place. Where do you go?"

He said the results are extremely unsafe conditions and high suicide rates.

Some of the statistics Rainwater cites in his upcoming film:

--There are fewer than 10,000 beds for homeless youth in this country. Rainwater quotes the 2013 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, which said 4,117 beds were available for children.

--More than 5,000 homeless youth die each year, which means more than 13 homeless youth die each day. Rainwater quotes the National Alliance to End Homelessness, which said "5,000 unaccompanied youth die each year as a result of assault, illness, or suicide."

--Without any exact study on the issue, knowing the numbers of homeless youth is difficult. Rainwater said more than 1 million is a conservative estimate. He bases his numbers on the National Alliance to End Homelessness, which said 1 million to 1.6 million experience homelessness each year. Rainwater also said the National Runaway Safeline reports between 1.6 million and 2.8 million runaways a year.

--At 5,000, more homeless youth die on the streets of America each year than military troops died in the war in Afghanistan -- 2,196, as of 2013

--On a single night in January of 2013, 118,000 youth, under 25, in the U.S. were sheltered, and 43,000 were without shelter. That same night, homeless youth under 18 made up 30 percent of the sheltered population in the U.S.

--An average of 350,000 homeless youth are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Rainwater cites the Center for American Progress, which said there are 320,000 to 400,000 LGBT homeless youth a year.

Rainwater also directs people here who want to know more.

The Standard-Examiner Young & Homeless Initiative is an effort to find ways to get the community to come together and lift up youth who are at risk of becoming homeless or who become homeless.

The Standard-Examiner is donating $1 for efforts to fight youth homelessness for every donation made online as part of the Standard-Examiner Young & Homeless initiative, up to $10,000.

To donate, visit

You may reach JaNae Francis at 801-625-4228. Follow her on Twitter at JaNaeFrancisSE. Like her Facebook page at


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