Three Steps to Help End Youth Homelessness

(The following Op-Ed was authored by Kim Justice and Jim Theofelis and originally published in the Seattle Times February 1, 2017)

On any given night, in every county of our state, many youth and young adults have no family to eat dinner with, no safe place in which to do homework or no bed to sleep in.

“Patricia” lived with her grandmother for most of her adolescence, but due to poverty she became homeless in her late teens. In addition to facing addiction to cope with her struggles, she received a devastating cancer diagnosis. Without a place to live, “Patricia,” now in her early twenties and living in the Yakima-area, had no place to call home.

No young person should go through this alone. The good news is that we can make it better for “Patricia” and the nearly 13,000 unaccompanied youth and young adults (ages 12 to 24) who access homeless support services each year in Washington. The time to act is now.

In our state, momentum is building to prevent and end youth homelessness. King County recently was named one of 10 communities across the country to receive a federal grant to tackle youth homelessness.

At the state level, two new efforts are positioning Washington to become a national leader on this front. The newly formed Office of Homeless Youth, a Department of Commerce effort, is working to understand the unique challenges communities face and to find solutions that work for vulnerable young people.

Recognizing that government can’t do it alone, partners and advocates recently came together to launch A Way Home Washington, a growing movement dedicated to helping communities prevent and end youth homelessness.

Because we can’t identify solutions if we don’t fully understand the problem, A Way Home Washington and the Office of Homeless Youth traveled across the state with First Lady Trudi Inslee to gain a better understanding of the hurdles young people and their communities face.

This contributed to a new Office of Homeless Youth report that highlights three actions we can take now to turn the tide on youth homelessness.

• Ensure youth who are leaving social services have a safe place to go.

In a single year, more than 1,700 young people experienced homelessness after aging out of foster care, exiting a juvenile-justice facility or leaving a chemical-dependency treatment facility. We can prevent this through strategies like supporting foster youth to enroll in Extended Foster Care, ensuring that they remain in safe housing until age 21 and developing comprehensive transition plans to stable housing.

• Invest in crisis intervention and diversion to help prevent homelessness in the first place.

Families should not have to lose their teenager to the streets, foster care or the juvenile-justice system. Early interventions like family reconciliation and mental-health support help families stay together in healthy relationships and tackle underlying causes of homelessness.

• Improve education and employment outcomes.

In just our K-12 public schools, we have nearly 6,000 unaccompanied students, meaning they’re homeless and not in the physical custody of a parent or guardian. As lawmakers debate the need to fulfill McCleary and fund public education, we cannot forget those students who do not have a home to return to after the bell rings. We must work with schools to identify these students and connect them to services that support their academic success.

To accomplish these initial steps and more, Gov. Jay Inslee has directed an interagency work group, led by the Office of Homeless Youth, to establish an integrated and consistent statewide approach this spring to preventing and ending youth homelessness.

Every family navigates tough times, but we can’t let any young person slip through the cracks. Washington can both prevent and end youth homelessness here at home and become a model for the nation in finally ensuring every young person has a safe place to call home.

When our young people succeed, we all succeed. That’s why we must continue working together to prevent and end youth homelessness in Washington state. For young people like “Patricia” and her family, time is of the essence.

Kim Justice is executive director of the Office of Homeless Youth, Washington State Department of Commerce. Jim Theofelis, a state licensed mental-health and chemical-dependency counselor, is executive director, A Way Home Washington.

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