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Op-ed: That Time Audra McDonald Spent a Night on the Streets

Op-ed: That Time Audra McDonald Spent a Night on the Streets


Famed Broadway performer Audra McDonald wanted to understand how she could help homeless LGBT youth. So she went to live with them for a night.

As I lay wide awake on the cold pavement in the middle of a November night in New York City, I thought about our children.

Children bounced from one foster home to the next until, at age 18, they're told to make it on their own.

Kids who survive unspeakable abuse at home and run to the streets for their very lives, only to find pimps and traffickers waiting to buy and sell them like pieces of merchandise.

I thought about LGBTQ teenagers who are told to leave home by their parents for being true to themselves and their sexuality, and end up living on the streets.

That night in November, my mind racing with the faces and voices of children, I joined 1,000 advocates across the United States and Canada in a Sleep Out sponsored by Covenant House, on whose international board of directors I serve.

At Covenant House, we care for more than 2,000 homeless and trafficked youth every night in 27 cities across six countries. I became involved last year after watching a homeless boy make his way from the streets into the safety of Covenant House's New York City program. A few weeks later, Covenant House president Kevin Ryan introduced me to an amazing, diverse, motivated group of formerly homeless kids, and the dedicated staff and volunteers who help them, and I decided to do whatever I could to help.

That day led me to meeting more Covenant House kids across the United States. I've listened to their hopes and been uplifted by stories from LGBTQ youth across the United States describing Covenant House as the first safe place they felt accepted. Their big dreams and inherent courage led me to sleep outside the Covenant House crisis shelter on November 20 -- Transgender Day of Remembrance -- to raise awareness and funds to support this movement for homeless youth.

Please understand -- I was not under the delusion that one night on the street is anything like what homeless kids endure. The kids knew that too, and they got it. I've found that homeless youth are genuinely touched that anyone would take even one night out of their lives to care.

In fact, every young person I have met at Covenant House has been traumatized in some way. Nearly one in four have been sexually exploited, many as human trafficking victims. And up to 40 percent of homeless youth have been abandoned, rejected, or discriminated against due to their sexual orientation.

So our goal for the sleep out was not to pretend we were homeless, but to raise money that goes directly for food, clothing, shelter, medical attention, education, job training, and short and long-term housing for homeless kids.

The result was life-affirming and incredible. On this one night we raised more than $1.8 million in New York City and more than $5.2 million across Canada and the United States.

Every person who sleeps out gets the opportunity to meet some of the Covenant House kids, so homeless youth are no longer the distant, camouflaged strangers we too often pass on the streets. I'm told that many Sleep Out participants continue their service by volunteering their time in Covenant House shelters and sharing their financial resources. And by raising money from family, friends, and co-workers, Sleep Out participants also inspire thousands more to work toward a day when kids won't have to live on the streets.

Earlier the same evening, I stood on a makeshift stage in the middle of Times Square with more than 20 representatives from different, diverse organizations who bring help and hope to homeless youth in New York City. We rallied together in a candlelight vigil for homeless youth, lifting flames to the sky in remembrance of the hundreds of thousands of homeless youth on the streets of America, especially LGBTQ young people. From the stage we looked out on an ocean of beautiful young faces, including hundreds of homeless youth now getting life-saving help at Covenant House, the True Colors Fund, the Peter Cicchino Gay and Lesbian Youth Project, the Door, and GEMS, and so many other great organizations.

As I looked into the faces of the children, I thought of the lyrics of one of my favorite Billie Holiday songs, "God Bless the Child."

Mama may have, papa may have
But God bless the child that's got his own
That's got his own

It occurred to me that this gathering of so many diverse organizations working with homeless youth was really all about one thing ... re-dedicating ourselves to making sure all young people have a chance to rise up in love, to embrace the great promise of their lives, to "get their own."

This movement is about giving homeless young people what all children deserve ... love, trust, safety, good food, a safe bed to sleep in, mentors, people who care about them.

It is about giving young people the chance to dream of finishing school, of first jobs, of homes, and of course, families of their own. This movement is about gathering as a family to let these kids know we love them. This is not about tolerating our youth; this is about celebrating them for exactly who they are.

May 2015 be the year that this movement on behalf of all homeless youth gathers momentum, so that every young person who needs a safe bed can find one.

God Bless the Child.

AUDRA McDONALD is a Tony- and Grammy-award winning actress and singer. She sits on the advisory board of the advocacy organization Broadway Impact and has been featured in campaigns for Freedom to Marry, NOH8, and PFLAG NYC. In 2012 she and her now-husband, actor Will Swenson, received PFLAG National's Straight for Equality Award. Follow her on Twitter @audraequalitymc

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