See more of the story

In December 2023, the Department of Housing and Urban Development's homelessness assessment identified an estimated 653,100 individuals who, on a single night, were either unhoused or housed in shelters and the like. More than 186,000 of them were in families with children, while almost 35,000 experienced homelessness alone, without family, while still being kids themselves.

You may not be aware of these youths sleeping under bridges or in doorways, living in their cars or cheap hotels. In the mid-aughts, Florida resident Vicki Sokolik wasn't aware of them, either. A "stay-at-home mom" raising two kids, Sokolik was affluent enough to donate scores of Thanksgiving meals and Christmas gifts but was motivated more by "trying to make [herself] feel better."

Her incentive changed after encountering "unaccompanied homeless youth," defined as those under 25, not living with a parent or guardian, and lacking safe, stable housing. In "If You See Them," Sokolik writes how she went from "searching for meaning" to making a difference, founding a nonprofit that has helped hundreds of homeless youth by providing the resources, advocacy and care they need to learn to succeed independently.

Like Sokolik, who exhibits a boundless, indomitable determination, her book tries to do it all, acting as public policy primer, introspective autobiography and nonprofit origin story, while introducing around 10 kids who benefited from "Starting Right, Now" (SRN), the organization she founded to help 15- to 19-year-olds in west central Florida.

Sokolik's earliest actions were solo, and when she tells her husband she paid the deposit on an apartment for people she only recently met, he responds: "I think you've lost your mind." He quickly comes around, and Sokolik enlists big guns like Tampa's mayor and the Tampa Bay Rays' president, one of her cousins. By 2012, SRN is up and running, fielding referrals from schools. SRN pays for standardized tests, clothes, food, medical care, even proms and a prize-winning pig, but its most valuable resource is relentless support. Initially, kids got their own apartments, but in 2013, after predictable setbacks, SRN acquired and rehabbed an abandoned shelter.

These aren't "rebellious teenagers who leave home because they don't like the rules," but traumatized kids who grew up in nightmarish circumstances. Not every child wants help, and not every story is a success. Snapshots of the kids' lives reveal the many ways the system is stacked against them. Courtney stole a coat when she was sleeping in a park, and her misdemeanor arrest dogs her for years. Sergio can't get a copy of his birth certificate without parental assistance.

I wish the book — while unquestionably well-intentioned, informative and laudable — had focused on just a couple of kids, like Alex Kotlowitz with "There Are No Children Here" or Steve James with "Hoop Dreams." After reading "If You See Them," you only really know Sokolik. First-person passages from SRN alums become superfluous because she echoes them in her own words, and her privileged background, parenting dilemmas and forthright soul-searching can be distracting.

According to HUD, Minnesota's estimated 700 unaccompanied homeless youth ranked 10th nationwide. We can't all emulate Sokolik, but her example should motivate us not only to see these folks, but to help them if we can.

Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer.

If You See Them

By: Vicki Sokolik.

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau, 337 pages, $30.