Opinion

Homeless youths can’t be left behind

From the Editorial Board

Omar Rashid, right, an outreach worker with Community Youth Services, and volunteer Linda Rick, help set up 50 cots for a cold weather shelter at Beacon Senior Center in Tacoma for young adults age 18-24 experiencing homelessness.
Omar Rashid, right, an outreach worker with Community Youth Services, and volunteer Linda Rick, help set up 50 cots for a cold weather shelter at Beacon Senior Center in Tacoma for young adults age 18-24 experiencing homelessness. News Tribune file photo, 2015

Imagine 185 school buses loaded with young people, driving around in circles, headed nowhere in particular. The buses run low on gas and eventually drop off their youthful passengers at public parks, street corners and flophouses. The doors shut, and the driver pulls away without a backward glance.

This metaphor presents a picture of youth homelessness in Washington — a picture so appalling and embarrassing, many find it easier just to look away.

Over the course of a year, nearly 13,000 Washingtonians under age 25 are on their own and lack a reliable place to call home — enough to fill 185 school buses, according to a report released last month by the state Department of Commerce.

Of those unaccompanied youths, nearly 6,000 are students in K-12 public schools. More than 1,300 young people sleep on the streets on any given night, says the 2016 report by the Office of Homeless Youth Prevention and Protection Programs.

And those numbers don’t include thousands of additional displaced youths who belong to a homeless family.

On Tuesday, Gov. Jay Inslee brought the disturbing picture into focus. He issued a directive creating an interagency work group on youth homelessness. “We need to ensure that all young people have a safe and stable place to call home and the support they need to thrive,” the governor said.

While it might seem an unattainable goal, failing to reach for it would be a collective disgrace for our state.

At the very least, Washington must do better ensuring youths don’t fall into homelessness directly after leaving foster homes or other public systems of care. It’s unconscionable that in 2014 more than 400 juveniles were left high and dry by parents who refused to pick them up from Pierce County detention; for another 146 youths, no parent could be located.

A cynic might observe that all the work groups, annual reports, bureaucratic strategies and recommendations in the world won’t put a roof over a child’s head, absent more funding. Inslee has accounted for that, too: $120 million in affordable housing and other homelessness investments are woven into his proposed 2017-18 budget.

His new work group will mobilize representatives from more than a dozen state agencies, ranging from juvenile justice to workforce training, from health care to four different commissions on minority affairs. This multi-faceted approach makes sense, because homelessness is not just about shelter; the causes and effects cross many boundaries.

Crucially, the group is under orders not merely to ponder and palaver, but to begin implementing real action plans in 2017.

We would expect similar urgency from any group delegated to study the challenges of homelessness around the state or region. On Tuesday, for example, the Puyallup City Council is poised to spin off a subcommittee to work on solutions for that city’s homeless crisis. Puyallup leaders should set clear goals and deadlines, not let problems continue to fester.

Some communities already have taken bold steps to provide safety and stability for down-and-out young people. Tacoma is planning to build a homeless shelter for 18- to 24-year-olds and a drop-in center for 12- to 24-year-olds. Granted, a South Tacoma business district might not be the ideal site. But local officials deserve credit for addressing a broad age spectrum and for not turning their backs on young adults who have aged out of traditional supports for children.

More efforts like this are needed across Washington, with local government and state legislative backing. First lady Trudi Inslee has emerged as an outspoken advocate for homeless youths; her compassion (and access to the chief executive) could go a long way.

The image of 185 buses, driving in circles, running low on gas, must not define Washington’s treatment of young people who don’t have a family or a home. The state needs a road map and plenty of fuel for the long haul.

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