The crowd, many in their late teens, answered questions from Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., about the difficulties young people face getting into the workforce.
“Here we’re talking about somebody (who) drops out of high school, can’t find a job. A year goes by, can’t find a job. Another year goes by, can’t find a job,” Sanders said. “What’s the likelihood of that young person finding employment, real employment?”
“Slim to none,” one young woman responded.
Sanders, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., and Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., visited the youth services center to announce legislation that aims to increase employment rates among young people.
The measure would put $5.5 billion toward creating job opportunities and increasing professional training for young people across the country. The money would be available as grants to states and municipalities.
The bill would help support organizations like Sasha Bruce Youthwork, according to Sanders. The group helps D.C. young adults who are homeless or at risk of homelessness access job-training programs, study for their GED, and many other services.
According to Sanders, there are 5.3 million young Americans who are unemployed. The unemployment rate for white youth between the ages of 17 and 20 is 28 percent. For Hispanic youth, the rate is almost 30 percent, and for African Americans, it is more than 42 percent, according to Sanders.
Conyers told the crowd that he considers employment a critical component in broader social justice efforts.
“This is a key part of growing up and making it in America, is getting a job,” he said.
Several people who are involved with Youthworks’ programs shared their stories, including one young woman, a single parent, who said she finds herself facing poverty and homelessness.
“People don’t understand how important it is to make sure that we do have jobs and opportunities to work, so we can also properly raise the children that people say we can’t raise because of the jobs we don’t have,” she said.
As Congress is in the process of putting together a financial package for the next fiscal year, the bill faces an uphill battle in the Republican-dominated House and Senate.
Even so, for groups that work with at-risk and homeless young people, the potential for a new infusion of funding is promising.
Burlington-based organization Spectrum Youth and Family Services has seen the percentage of its budget funded by state and federal government erode from about 97 percent in 2003 to less than half now, according to executive director Mark Redmond.
That has left the organization looking increasingly to private donations and other sources to fund the diverse range of programs the group runs, which include providing shelter for homeless youth, professional development opportunities and more.
Redmond said the organization is closely watching developments with the national budget. Changes in Washington to programs like Medicaid could result in less federal funding for Spectrum and groups that work with young Vermonters.
Sarah Woodard, also of Spectrum, said the organization works with about 1,500 young Vermonters each year through the full range of programs.
“The demand is certainly only rising from what we can see,” Woodard said.
In 2015, 7.4 percent of Vermonters between the ages of 18 and 24 weren’t working or in school, according to Bethany Pombar, director of the Vermont Coalition of Runaway and Homeless Youth Programs.
The coalition comprises 14 programs that work with at-risk young people, including Spectrum.
In Vermont, many young people who are struggling with employment have a difficult time finding ways to get to work and affordable child care, according to Pombar. She said she was pleased to see the proposed legislation would make grants available to fund those services.
“Really we do see transportation as a large issue, we have really rural population with a lack of opportunity close and local,” Pombar said.