By Erin Kelly
Free Press Washington Writer

After three months of bingeing on cocaine, crystal meth and Ecstasy, 19-year-old Michael Hutchins lay dying in the back of a speeding ambulance as paramedics fought to restart his heart.

“I awoke in a hospital bed several hours later, alone, homeless, broke and terrified,” the Burlington, Vt., resident testified Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee. “The only thing I possessed in that moment was the realization that I wouldn’t be alive much longer if I didn’t get help.”

Hutchins found that help at the Spectrum Youth and Family Services shelter in downtown Burlington. The nonprofit organization gave him a place to stay in its 12-bed shelter and later moved him into an apartment building a few blocks away, where he lived for 18 months as he underwent counseling and found a job.

Today, Hutchins, 25, is a residential manager at the Spectrum Youth Co-op, a small group home for homeless boys and young men. Most of them, like Hutchins, were victims of physical and sexual abuse as children.

“I can only hope that the youth that I work with, as well as thousands and thousands of homeless and runaway youth in this nation today, will be able to share their own success stories,” Hutchins said.

That hope depends in part on Congress, Hutchins told the senators. He urged them to renew the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act. That law, set to expire at the end of September, provides federal funds to groups such as Spectrum that help homeless teens and young adults.

One of the law’s most powerful congressional supporters is Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who invited Hutchins to testify along with Spectrum Executive Director Mark Redmond. Leahy’s aides said he would introduce legislation in May to renew the act.

“The prevalence of youth homelessness in America is shockingly high,” Leahy said, citing studies that estimate there are 2 million to 3 million homeless youths in the United States.

In Vermont alone, nonprofit groups provide services to about 10,000 young people a year, Leahy said.

Redmond said Spectrum, the largest provider of services to homeless youths in Vermont, receives only $18,000 in federal funds and has not had an increase in its funding level since 1994.

“Our staff is out every day connecting with the scores of homeless youth in Burlington who are in the abandoned boxcars by Lake Champlain, in the woods near the lake or living behind restaurants on Church Street,” Redmond said. “With more funding, we can assist youth in exiting the streets.”

Leahy said he expects bipartisan support for his bill to renew the federal program.

“This country cannot afford not to do this, or we lose part of our soul,” he said.