Matt Driscoll

New initiative aims to end youth homelessness in Pierce County. Best of all? It could work.

More than 1 million children and youth are experiencing homelessness

Members of Comprehensive Life Resources walk through tents at a homeless encampment in the hills behind Spooner Farms in Puyallup on Nov. 30, 2017. In the video, homelessness creates significant educational barriers for youth to succeed in school.
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Members of Comprehensive Life Resources walk through tents at a homeless encampment in the hills behind Spooner Farms in Puyallup on Nov. 30, 2017. In the video, homelessness creates significant educational barriers for youth to succeed in school.

The goal is ambitious.

By 2022, A Way Home Washington — a 2-year-old nonprofit that describes itself as a “public-private partnership” — wants to end youth homelessness in four counties across the state, at least as much as that’s possible.

One of the counties A Way Home Washington is working with is Pierce — which submitted a proposal earlier this year and was selected to participate. Spokane, Yakima and Walla Walla were also selected as “anchor communities.”

Pierce County’s inclusion makes the progress well worth tracking.

“It’s a challenge, and we knew that when we picked it,” said A Way Home Washington Executive Director Jim Theofelis this week. “I agree that it is ambitious. We wanted to find a balance between having a sense of urgency and having a reasonable amount of time to accomplish this.”

So how, exactly, are they hoping to pull this off?

In a surprise, I came away cautiously optimistic about what I heard.

First, to put the daunting problem in perspective, A Way Home Washington says that more than 13,000 people under the age of 25 experience homelessness in Washington every year.

Pierce County’s most recent Point In Time count, meanwhile, identified a total of 391 individuals under the age of 25 experiencing homelessness — which represented just over 24 percent of the total number counted on one night in early 2018.

Ending homelessness among this population, according to Tess Colby, manager of the Pierce County’s Community Services Division, is “certainly a big, audacious goal.”

The gist of the game plan is straightforward, however: When a young person says “yes” to services — and Theofelis believes they overwhelmingly do, when those services are “developmentally and culturally appropriate” — A Way Home Washington wants to help Pierce County deliver.

The key, Theofelis said, is making sure such resources are readily available, and working in concert as part of a strategic, holistic approach that’s focused on diversity and to reducing the disproportionate ways we know homeless impacts certain communities.

The nonprofit will do so, he said, by providing “coaching and infrastructure building,” as well as providing resources for coordination, technology, innovation and advocacy in Olympia.

Theofelis describes it as building a system of “yes to yes” for young people experiencing homelessness.

In other words, if a young person wants to escape the street, they’ll quickly be met by adequate resources and services to make it happen.

Theofelis said that will mean working with Pierce County and likely the state Legislature for funding, at least to some extent, to ensure three important things are available.

For starters, Theofelis says, the effort will focus on making sure strong prevention and diversion programs are in place to prevent homelessness in the first place.

That’s critically important, and a notion Pierce County has sometimes been slow to come around to. Not only is it cheaper than intervening once homelessness has already hit, it’s the surest way to stem the tide of a growing crisis.

Next, the plan calls for ensuring that adequate emergency responses exist, so that when a youth does experience homelessness, there’s somewhere to go. As an example, Theofelis cited Tacoma Housing Authority’s planned Arlington Drive Youth Campus, which among other things will feature a 12-bed crisis center that acts as a stabilizing stepping stone on the way to more permanent housing.

Lastly, Theofelis identified a need for more long-term housing programs specifically serving youth. These could take a number of forms, he said, from full-blown developments to more modest networks of families willing to help house children. Most of all, the executive director noted, these programs would need to do more than simply provide roofs. To truly accomplish what the plan is setting out to do, they’ll also need to deliver things like mental health support, academic resources and career training.

Colby said she believes many of these resources are already in place in Pierce County — in some cases, they just need to be utilized more efficiently.

The real trick, she said, will be “building on the existing relationships … and identifying where the holes are” and then using a “data-driven approach” to assess what’s working and what’s not.

“I’m a big fan of driving your dollars toward programs and projects that are proven and that can increase effectiveness. So that same philosophy will hold true to the work we do with youth homelessness,” Colby added.

And if it all works?

“I want to be clear: this has not been done anywhere in the country,” Theofelis said. “No state has figured it out, and I think Washington is positioned to be a national model.”

It’s a great vision.

The best news of all?

At least from outset, there’s reason to believe it has a shot.

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