In its most recent session the Washington state legislature continued to build on its goal to end youth homelessness with new laws and funding. The legislative action was bold and strategic and sets the stage for substantial improvements to the lives of young people and their families.
First off, the state took a number of steps to prevent young people from exiting public systems, like child welfare or juvenile justice, to the streets. The legislature ordered that the juvenile justice, behavioral health and child welfare systems must ensure that all youth exiting those systems have stable housing by 2021, and allocated housing funds for youth exiting juvenile prisons. The legislature also strengthened extended foster care, allowing young people to opt in and out depending on their situation, and put an end to the state’s practice of excluding certain high needs youth.
In addition, the legislature started to correct a historical lack of focus on minors—youth under age 18—who experience homelessness. It ordered state agencies to come up with a plan by the end of this year to provide early interventions for minors at risk of or experiencing homelessness and passed legislation to finally allow minors to enter their information into the state’s homelessness management information system. Doing so will allow state and localities to better track the demographics of youth homelessness, how they are being served, where services are needed and where services need to improve.
And not forgotten was the important role that education plays in ending youth homelessness. The legislature called for a plan to increase graduation rates and eliminate the equity gap for students experiencing homelessness and those in foster care by 2027. It also opened up post-secondary scholarships and provided financial assistance for apprenticeships for homeless youth.
Among these impressive wins were some notable failures, as well. For example, though it came close, the legislature failed to end its counterproductive practice of locking up status offenders, including runaways, meaning the state will unfortunately likely continue to lead the nation in jailing these youth. Funding to expand the Youth Villages Lifeset model, which has been shown to increase housing stability of young adults who have been in foster care, was not included in the final budget.
Setbacks aside, it’s worth noting why Washington state has been so successful in forming a cohesive strategy to combat youth homelessness where other states have come up short. The state’s wins are due, in large part, to the Office of Homeless Youth. The Office was created by the legislature in 2015, and in 2016 it issued a comprehensive plan to end youth homelessness, set out near-term priorities and cross-cutting strategies and worked with advocates to move toward implementation. The Office’s effectiveness has been bolstered by external advocacy, Washington’s Coalition for Homeless Youth Advocacy has pushed hard on its shared agenda, along with leadership by young people from the Mockingbird Society and policy support from A Way Home Washington and Partners for Our Children.
The impact of a dedicated office to work toward ending homelessness can’t be overstated. In states where the ownership question has been largely answered, such as Minnesota, state legislation and funding tends to reflect both clear prioritization of the issue as well as a more rational approach to addressing youth homelessness. In states where there isn’t a dedicated focus or a clear “lead” on the issue of homeless youth, the legislative response tends to lack the cohesiveness needed to reduce the number of homeless young people.
I’m encouraged that the components for continued success are in place in Washington, and I hope that we can serve as a model for other states looking to take on youth homelessness. We have a comprehensive plan and leadership from the Office of Homeless Youth, Governor and the First Lady, bipartisan support in the legislature and external, organized advocacy. We are also reckoning with the fact that homelessness can only be solved when there is attention to the systems and forces that drive youth onto the streets, including institutionalized racism and implicit bias. Most importantly, we have youth voice at all levels, reminding us all that solutions must be crafted alongside those who have been most impacted by our failure to act.
Continued successes like this year’s slate of new legislation give hope that the failures of the past may be giving way to an end to youth homelessness.