Many people, from staff and board members to conference attendees and members, work with the Coalition to help us achieve our mission. “Advocates in the Spotlight” celebrates different types of advocates, from people in the field to those behind-the-scenes working in our office every day. See the rest of the series here

Imagine studying for the SATs in a homeless shelter. Or finding yourself traveling the country alone at 18 because the law says you’re too old for foster care. Or relying on distant relatives for temporary housing while your parents try to transition from homelessness to stability. You’re imagining what it’s like to be a homeless child.

Angela Lariviere, once homeless herself growing up, saw just how many Ohio children were growing up homeless as an AmeriCorps volunteer working at COHHIO, an NLIHC state coalition partner in Columbus. She realized she hadn’t been as alone as she thought, and that she was in a position to help.

Ethan, Ben, Angela, Shane and Lashonda

Angela joined with homeless youth she met in Ohio homeless shelters to form the Youth Empowerment Program, a grassroots network of young people experiencing homelessness that addresses the needs of homeless, transitioning and unaccompanied youth age 11-24. A youth-directed organization, YEP’s goal is to prevent and end youth homelessness through state, local and federal advocacy.

We caught up with Angela and four YEP youth- Ben, Lashonda, Ethan and Shane- during their recent visit to Washington, D.C. to meet with Representative Steve Stivers (R-OH) and tour the nation’s capital.

The five advocates looked tired from a long morning of travel, but their passion for advocacy and helping homeless youth shined through during our interview.

It was clear that for Ben, who became homeless through aging out of foster care, the opportunity to advocate for his own and other YEP members’ needs was empowering and validating. He spoke eloquently about the need not to manage the crisis of youth homelessness, but to prevent it. He explained that the five focus issues of YEP- housing, education, foster care, physical and mental health, and juvenile justice- must all be addressed in order to end youth homelessness. “It’s all interconnected,” Ben said. “It’s not just one thing [homeless] youth face.”

Lashonda has been involved with YEP since meeting Angela in her AmeriCorps days 11 years ago. She saw the power of advocacy first-hand when shelter regulations meant her 13 year old brother would not be able to stay in the women and children’s shelter with Lashonda and their mother, because of his age. Her brother spoke to lawmakers and paved the way for this rule to be changed, making it easier for homeless families to stay together. Lashonda credits her involvement with YEP for her extensive knowledge of housing and homelessness issues, and for helping her become more comfortable offering her own experiences in order to help others.

Angela emphasized that a key focus of YEP is advocating for policy that accounts for the true circumstances of homeless youth. YEP is governed by homeless youth, and YEP used focus groups and surveys of homeless youth to develop its advocacy agenda and identify necessary policy changes. YEP youth are empowered not just to tell the stories of their lives, but to become leaders in advocacy and social change.

The camaraderie among Angela and the YEP youth was evident, and they all made clear that YEP functioned as a support network for its members as well as being an engine of advocacy. YEP youth use Facebook to keep in touch with each other and make sure to reach out to those experiencing hardship. They learn to rely on each other, and to be relied on. Angela explained how vital this support is to homeless youth, as it is “constantly a conflict to pull out of” the circumstances that cause homelessness.

Affordable housing, of course, is a key issue and at the top of YEP’s advocacy priorities. “Housing is a sense of stability,” Lashonda said. “Instability in your life leads to other [negative] things.”

Are you as inspired by Angela and YEP as we are? Share your thoughts in the comments.