A new approach to housing homeless kids is low-cost, community-based and effective. So why is the state putting up barriers?
Lori Cavender was handing out socks and hot soup to homeless kids outside Oak Harbor High School when she heard about a homeless girl, 17 and pregnant, who needed a place to stay, pronto.
As luck had it, a pair of social workers had told Cavender, a former youth minister, they’d be willing to take a homeless kid in — as long as it was a teenage mom-to-be.
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.
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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.
More often than not, homeless kids like that girl face a short menu of bad options. Whidbey Island, like much of the state, doesn’t have a youth homeless shelter. Cavender has gotten used to seeing kids sleep in barns and the occasional chicken coop.
The state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) very rarely takes 17-year-olds into foster care, too often leaving them to their own devices. But consider this: Washington leads the nation in jailing kids for noncriminal offenses, such as running away.
So when the neighbors-helping-neighbors approach worked for the pregnant girl, a light bulb went off for Cavender, who runs a nonprofit called Ryan’s House in the Whidbey Island town of Freeland.
“If it worked for her, why wouldn’t it work for other kids?” said Cavender.
That idea evolved into something called a host home. It looks something like a foreign-exchange student arrangement. A homeowner with an extra bedroom and a generous spirit takes in a homeless kid. Unlike foster care, the kid has to volunteer to stay with the host, and their parents must also agree.
Little if any money changes hands. There’s liability insurance policies for the host home and Ryan’s House, and several safeguards, including background checks and interviews with the kid and the host home. The whole thing runs on a large measure of trust, but the model is getting lots of attention, locally and nationally, especially among churches.
Since 2011, Ryan’s House has placed 21 kids in host homes on Whidbey. Fifteen graduated, Cavender said — one as a valedictorian. That’s almost double the graduation rate for kids in foster care.
“It’s not easy, but it’s worth it,” said Kari Dickson, a Ryan’s House host. With her husband, Adam, she took in and ultimately adopted a 17-year-old girl who’d seen one parent die and another seized by addiction, and was living with an abusive extended family. “You’re saving someone’s life, really,” Dickson said.
But the feel-good party ended earlier this year, when Ryan’s House came to the attention of the brass at the state DSHS. Agency officials pulled up to Ryan’s House and told Cavender that she couldn’t place underage kids in host families without a state foster-care license.
When I asked the agency, “Why?” officials refused to answer questions, but sent a statement emphasizing that “no children in the department’s care and custody are placed there or in any unlicensed home.”
Cavender took pains not to criticize the agency. So I will.
That emphasis by DSHS — that foster kids weren’t placed in host homes — is ironic. The agency prioritizes its scarce resources for younger kids, so the bar for an abused or neglected teenager to even get into care is very high. If they do get in, the state struggles so badly to recruit new foster parents that their ranks last year fell to a 30-year low, according to the Foster Parents Association of Washington. And DSHS doesn’t have nearly enough services to divert troubled teenagers from foster care and reunite them with parents.
So what is DSHS doing, shutting down — instead of encouraging — homes for homeless kids?
Liability is probably a factor. But there’s already a handful of host-home programs around the state, including ones in Seattle, Tacoma and Shelton. They’ve figured out insurance coverage and a background-check process that has avoided the type of bad stories that you hear about foster homes.
The whole point of host homes is that they are not foster homes. They are a grass-roots response — “a community cleaving to a child,” said Kim Reinhardt of Mason County Host, which serves about 25 kids a year in Shelton-area host homes. “We’re clearly filing a role. Let’s not make this more complicated than it needs to be.”
For now, Cavender negotiated a detente with DSHS that allows her to put kids 17 and older in host homes. She and other host-home programs plan to lobby the Legislature this year to explicitly allow host homes. DSHS appears willing to work with them.
“This program could be run all across the state in communities without shelters,” said Cavender. “It could be one of the greatest answers.”
Could be, and should be. The state needs to get out of their way and let a grass-roots solution help a bunch of homeless kids.