Four years ago, a landmark national study confirmed what practitioners on the ground have known for years: Youth and young adult homelessness is just as prevalent in rural areas as it is in urban areas.
Walla Walla County was one of the communities the study focused on, using our specific challenges in housing young people to reflect the nation’s challenges.
As this study was coming out, Walla Walla County was chosen to take part in the Anchor Community Initiative, A Way Home Washington’s innovative program to support communities across the state in their efforts to end youth homelessness. I stood shoulder-to-shoulder with members of Pearl Jam, Democratic First Lady Trudi Inslee and then state Sen. Maureen Walsh at the Orion Center in Seattle as we kicked off this ambitious and bipartisan initiative.
Four years later, despite setbacks from the global pandemic, a community’s hard work is paying off. This year, Walla Walla County became just the fourth community in the U.S., and second in Washington, to achieve a measurable reduction in youth and young adult homelessness. Since April 2021, there has been an 80% reduction in unsheltered youth homelessness. Our goal has always been “yes to yes” — meaning that when a young person chooses to come in, our community will be there waiting for them with services and a place to go.
What lessons does Walla Walla have for the rest of the state? Hopefully, many. The process has been slow and deliberate, by design. As we like to say, systemic change to end homelessness is a marathon, not a sprint.
We successfully built a “by-name list” that keeps track of every single young person who interacts with the homelessness system, similar to the one the King County Regional Homelessness Authority is building in downtown Seattle right now. It sounds simple, but it is anything but — and once you have the list, all other outreach and housing work stems from it.
We’ve also built several programs that are specifically tailored to each young person’s needs — so that once we know who they are and where they are, we can get them to the shelter and housing solution that works for them. The Youth Engagement Team, including several youth navigator caseworkers and an attorney, receive most of the referrals and help young people find a place to live. The Young Adult Rapid Re-Housing Program provides subsidized rent to help young people afford that place to live. The Homelessness Prevention and Diversion Fund stops young people from entering homelessness in the first place by providing flexible funds that creatively explore options to house young people quickly outside of the homelessness system.
One of the most important aspects of achieving a measurable reduction is fulfilling the promise of a “public-private partnership” — a term that has a very important meaning. As providers and advocates, we cannot succeed without government officials working with us every step of the way. Starting with the leadership of Sen. Walsh to bring the Anchor Community Initiative to Walla Walla in the first place, we have had terrific partners from county and city governments since day one. Norma L. Hernández, mayor of College Place, the second largest city in Walla Walla County, said recently, “I just want young people to feel like they belong in our community and for them to thrive here.”
The work isn’t done in Walla Walla, and we’ll keep moving forward until “yes to yes” is achieved. Until then, we’re thankful for the support across the state that has propelled our community forward — and in return, we hope we can provide a road map for those embarking on their own journeys to end youth homelessness.
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