We cannot address education reform while dismantling and defunding critical services for our most vulnerable populations — youth, ages 13-24.
IN Washington state, the epidemic of homelessness has persisted for so long, even the youngest among us understand what the montage of blue tarps, tents and rows of motor homes parked on our streets means.
For the sake of our kids, we can never accept this as the new normal. Sadly, some proposed legislation in Olympia could make it even harder for us to support young people who experience homelessness.
In Washington state, at least 13,000 unaccompanied young people, age 13-24, receive homeless services each year. Unaccompanied means not only are they experiencing homelessness, they are surviving on their own without the benefit of being with family or kin. Youth of color and LGBTQ youth are significantly overrepresented, while young people with developmental disabilities and those exploited by the sex-trade industry are nearly invisible.
As shocking as this number is, it is undoubtedly an undercount, primarily because the most vulnerable are only children, under the age of 18.
The state has decided that unaccompanied minor youth are legally unable to consent to sharing their personal information with the state data system. This is a major barrier to ensuring we have accurate information to drive the development of policies, services, system evaluation and innovation that could lift youth out of homelessness.
We must have the information required to address the true scope and size of youth homelessness, not only in King County, but across the state. Which services are working and which ones are not? And for whom?
As one young man experiencing homelessness said to me, “If you don’t even know how many of us there are, how can you build a good system?” He is exactly right.
House Bill 1630 would allow young people under 18 to voluntarily consent to the collection of personally identifiable information for the state Homeless Management Information System. This is a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, this proposed legislation now carries an amendment requiring minors to do so, or they will be refused access to critical services.
No teenager should be turned away simply because he is scared to provide private information that could compromise his safety. And no service provider should miss an opportunity to serve a young person or learn how to strengthen our service-delivery system.
This leaves no opportunity for service providers to establish a trusting relationship. It creates additional barriers to youth trying to exit the streets. And it plays right into the hands of predators. We need to connect young people with essential services so they can get back on their feet and on the road toward healing and achievement.
Equally troubling is the current Senate budget, which eliminates all funding for emergency shelter and long-term housing programs for young people age 18-24, who have just become legal adults. Of the 13,000 unaccompanied young people receiving services, the overwhelming majority (85 to 90 percent) fall within this age range.
Perhaps most disconcerting about these budget cuts is that, right now, Washington state is in a unique position to build a coordinated, statewide system that is youth and family centered, data driven, effective at family reunification and capable of moving young people into stable housing. The new, unique Office of Homeless Youth, a committed and informed philanthropic community and a growing sector of service providers has given us unprecedented momentum to prevent and end youth homelessness.
As an advocate for children, youth and families for more than four decades, I have immense respect for lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. I also appreciate the challenges and opportunities brought forward with McCleary, the state Supreme Court mandate on education funding. However, we cannot address education reform while dismantling and defunding critical services for our most vulnerable populations.
We have a real opportunity to end youth homelessness. Let’s take it.