Despite our booming economy, homelessness is on the rise. Especially troubling is the number of youths living on the street. How did they end up there, and what can we do to help them? This Opinion project looks in depth at these issues and proposes solutions.
YOU have to look closely to see the homeless kids scattered like fallen leaves across the region. They often don’t want to be seen.
The lucky ones are tucked into shelters or transitional housing, or are sleeping on the couches of a friend or maybe a teacher’s, and waking up in time for a warm breakfast at school.
But many are scratching to survive in tent camps from Auburn to Everett. Homeless kids regularly sleep under Interstate 5 near Eastlake Avenue, in the shadow of condo towers and high-tech offices. King County has a sizable youth-shelter system, yet turned away at least six kids a night last winter.
Video: What would have helped you?
Meet six young people from The Mockingbird Society talk about their experiences being homeless and what helped them get off the streets.
ColumnsEditor's note: Embracing the state's young and homeless
Op-EdsA call to action: LGBTQ teens need shelter, wraparound services
Support for this series
Reporting for this project was made possible with financial support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a private, national philanthropic organization that aims to better futures for disadvantaged children in the U.S. The work was done and directed independently of the foundation.
Reddit chatJonathan Martin and Megan Gibbard of All Home King County talked about youth homelessness during a recent "Ask Me Anything" Live chat on Reddit.
It’s tough to nail down how many there are. The state’s annual Point in Time count tallied more than 4,000 children and young adults as homeless at any given moment, either in families or alone. King County counted more than 800 “unaccompanied” youths — meaning no parent in sight. But both numbers are likely too low because homeless kids develop the survival skill of becoming virtually invisible.
Life on the streets vastly raises the odds that awful things will happen to these kids. Just 40 percent of homeless boys graduate high school, and they have double the normal rate of suspension. Nearly half of kids in homeless shelters have mental illnesses.
One other predictable outcome: Homeless kids are easy prey for King County’s sex-trafficking networks. More than a quarter of youths on the street say they’ve traded sex for food or shelter.
By some measures, the homeless problem is getting worse, despite concerted efforts of King County youth-focused philanthropies, such as the Raikes Foundation, and advocates, including Washington’s first lady Trudi Inslee.
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The raw numbers tell a story: A count of homeless students in Washington schools spiked by a third since the depth of the Great Recession. An estimated 4,600 of those students were unaccompanied. Imagine trying to do your math homework while sleeping in an emergency shelter.
This should be Washington’s year to do better. The Legislature created a new statewide office focused on homeless youth. Its first task is finding “system gaps” and resource holes that let thousands of children slip through the cracks into homelessness.
There are plenty of gaps and bureaucratic dysfunctions. The state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) focuses its stretched resources on younger kids, leaving teens as the neglected children of the child-welfare system. Outdated runaway and truancy laws cause Washington to lead the nation in jailing kids for noncriminal offenses and to fund detention over treatment. And the state has a leadership vacuum in responding to youth homelessness and runaways, with programs spread across three agencies that have very different missions.
Fixing this will require smarter planning and money. Targeted investments in preventive and treatment services would stave off the sky-high costs of jail beds. It would require a robust leadership in the new state Office of Homeless Youth Prevention and Protection Programs, which took over neglected teen-focused programs from DSHS.
The public has a role, too. Washington has a serious shortage of foster homes, especially for adolescents. Babies are easy to love; teens can be tough, but an investment of time can also be rewarding.
We cannot leave these homeless kids behind. Our chance to provide stability as they grow into adults is now.
TEENAGERS are the neglected children of Washington’s child-welfare system. Fixing that glaring hole in the state’s homeless-youth system will require money but also a culture change at the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS).
Across the state, attorneys, judges and child advocates say it is excruciatingly hard to get help for teens living in homes with abuse and neglect to get treatment or counseling services, even when they are ordered to do so by a court.
The consequences of a mostly closed door cascade across the state. At Seattle’s YouthCare shelter for kids under 18, staff members say they call in hundreds of Child Protective Services complaints a year, yet see just a couple of youths taken into state custody. In Spokane, public defenders took the unusual tactic of filing a petition themselves to get a youth into foster care because the state agency would not.
None of this is new to state Rep. Ruth Kagi, longtime chair of the House human-services committee. The Seattle Democrat once considered suing DSHS out of frustration to force the agency to broaden its focus and resources beyond younger kids to include teenagers.
“They’re almost constitutionally incapable of focusing on adolescents,” she said.
Jennifer Strus, head of DSHS’ Children’s Administration, disputes the notion that her agency has a mostly closed door to adolescents. Critics, she said, misunderstand the agency’s legal requirements to investigate complaints and take a child into care.
But she acknowledges one of the basic problems the agency has in helping adolescents: The state deficit of foster homes is at a crisis level.
The shortage is so severe that youths — some of them freshly removed from their homes — have been put up in hotels 165 times in 2014 and 2015 until a more permanent spot opens. That requires two social workers to stay there all night.
A well-meaning effort, headed by Vancouver foster parent Sarah Desjarlais, pairs volunteer “office moms” with children just removed from their own homes as they sit in the lobby, waiting up to 12 hours for DSHS social workers to find them a place to sleep that night. “You can’t imagine what this does to them,” she said.
But at least eight times since January 2014, kids ended up sleeping in those DSHS offices because no foster homes were available, according to data provided by the agency. That practice was once common but faded over the past decade of court-ordered improvements in the child-welfare system.
These are all symptoms of a dysfunctional system.
More money must be spent on services upstream to prevent kids from ever needing foster care. A DSHS program called Family Reconciliation Services (FRS) does just that, with social workers assessing problems for the whole family and providing counseling.
Yet the FRS budget has been cut in half since 2011, to $2.2 million this year, which is less than a tax exemption granted to rare-coin and bullion collectors. As a result, the counseling part of FRS is now gone, leaving it a shell of what it was. “It has been cut in bad times and not restored in good times,” said Strus.
There is also a cultural problem in DSHS regarding teens. The agency does not see serious conflict in homes with teenagers as part of its core mission and triages its resources in favor of younger children.
When DSHS was asked what it could eliminate last year as part of the budget process, it listed only programs serving teens and adolescents. Those programs were not slashed, thankfully, but DSHS’ willingness to put them on the chopping block speaks to priorities.
Those priorities need to include these vulnerable children on the cusp of adulthood.