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News / Health

Washington state’s ‘one of a kind’ youth homelessness response shows big results

By Greg Kim, The Seattle Times
Published: June 3, 2024, 6:02am

SEATTLE — Over the last decade, Washington state has built from nearly nothing a uniquely robust youth homeless response system that is showing staggering results.

By one count, there were 40% fewer homeless youths living on their own in 2023 than there were in 2016.

While some question the accuracy of the number, officials say it’s not a coincidence the decline lines up with their efforts.

At the center of the state’s transformation is the Office of Homeless Youth, an agency created in 2015 not only to administer funding but to shape policy and solutions for homeless youths and young adults.

“We’re really one of a kind in the country,” Executive Director Kim Justice said.

Meanwhile, adult homelessness continues to surge in the state. The state has increased its investment in helping adults recently, but no similar statewide agency exists for the much larger adult population.

Officials say Washington’s effectiveness lies in tailoring interventions for the younger age group by listening to them and looking at data, understanding that the causes and solutions for youth homelessness are unique.

What they’ve found is that the earlier homelessness is addressed, the better. And their plan is to reach further upstream to try to turn off the tap.

When Gov. Jay Inslee first took office in 2013, encampments had become more visible, and the homelessness crisis had begun to take center stage in state politics. By 2015, Seattle and King County declared a state of emergency on homelessness.

Most of that conversation was about adults who were living in tents on sidewalks and in vehicles and stretching the region’s shelter and social services system to capacity.

But Inslee’s first substantive action on homelessness was to create the Office of Homeless Youth.

Inslee said it was an intentional choice.

“If your ship is sinking, who do you put in the lifeboat very first? It’s your children,” Inslee said. “They have the first claim on our affection, our hopes and our resources, frankly.”

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agreed. It was easier to get on the same page about addressing homelessness for youths than for adults.

“You don’t ascribe as much human agency and responsibility when someone’s a child or even a teenager,” said Steve O’Ban, a former Republican state senator from University Place who sponsored the Senate bill to create the office.

And there was a need.

Deonate Cruz exited foster care in Seattle in 2010 and began couch surfing with friends in Burien. He found that homelessness services prioritized older adults, veterans and people who had severe mental health or addiction use issues.

“It felt like a waste of time,” said Cruz, who started advocating for homeless youths and now works for a state program to end youth homelessness. “The services weren’t really built for young folk at the time.”

A 2015 survey found that fewer than half the counties in Washington had any form of services for homeless youths or young adults.

Some officials hope that focusing on young people first has helped address the adult homelessness crisis.

A survey of the overall homeless population in King County showed that almost half of them experienced homelessness for the first time as a youth.

“More of us started to understand that homeless youth become homeless adults and we wanted to stop the cycle of homelessness, period,” said state Rep. Tana Senn, a Democrat.

Stephen Metraux, a homelessness expert at the University of Delaware, said one of the biggest predictors of becoming homeless is having experienced it previously.

“So if kids have experienced homelessness, that would put them at additional risk,” Metraux said.

“We know the more we wait for young people to be traumatized, the harder it is to find a successful housing outcome for them,” said Casey Trupin, a director at the Raikes Foundation.

The foundation, along with other major philanthropies like the Schultz Family Foundation, Campion Foundation and Ballmer Group, have provided millions of dollars to the state agency along with youth homelessness efforts in the state more broadly since 2015. That dearth of services is part of what attracted them. (Raikes and Campion provide funding to The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless team. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over the content.)

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“There was so little in the youth homelessness world, there were more opportunities to have successes,” Trupin said.

The federal government was becoming more involved in youth homelessness as well.

In 2016, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development began its Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program, which has since distributed more than $430 million to communities around the country. Washington’s new agency provided an infrastructure well positioned to capture those funds.

The state has increased funding for the Office of Homeless Youth, supplemented by federal dollars, from $10 million to $90 million biennially since 2015.

Now, all but two counties have some form of services for homeless youths and more than three-quarters have a shelter or housing program.

But the state isn’t just spending more. The office is also changing how that money is spent, based on data and testimony that show the causes and solutions for homeless youths are different from those for adults.

A significant number of homeless youths were exiting systems like foster care, the criminal legal system and drug rehabilitation centers, according to state data.

So the state put special attention on this population, including by creating housing crafted for young people exiting drug rehab or a mental health facility, which provides a clean and sober living environment and behavioral health staff and treatment on-site.

Research showed youths end up homeless in rural areas at similar rates to youths in cities. The finding was a surprise because adult homelessness is mostly concentrated in urban areas.

So the office prioritized spreading services throughout the state.

DeeAnna Orre, 23, grew up in Pend Oreille County, population 14,000, the northeastern-most county in the state. She dealt with mental health issues as a teenager, and said conflict stemming from her parents not knowing how to respond led her to sleep in her car or couch surf with friends, starting in high school.

Youths often cite family conflict as the main reason for becoming homeless, a marked difference from adults, for whom the availability of affordable housing is the biggest factor in homelessness, studies show.

Young people are less likely than adults to have burned bridges with family, experts say, so the state added “flexible funding” programs partly to try to reconnect them with family or other members of their personal networks. These programs fund counselors who work with youths to identify what would get them or keep them housed, and then give them money to pay for it.

“The realization was that sometimes young people are facing a crisis where they could avoid coming into the homeless response system altogether,” agency director Justice said.

Sometimes, that’s a plane ticket to live with an extended family member in another state.

Sometimes, the young person has or can get a job, and just needs to pay for first and last month’s rent and a security deposit, or to fix their car so they can get to work.

These programs report 90% of recipients are still housed after a year of receiving funds at about half the cost of operating a shelter bed.

The solution isn’t a panacea for everyone.

“I’m not sure if that would have been enough for me just because of the ongoing cost of living in this city,” said Leeze Castro, 24, who lives in Seattle and couch surfed in the Puget Sound area for much of their teens and early 20s.

They left their mom’s house because of safety concerns being around their older brother’s friends, Castro said, and after their dad was incarcerated. Castro said even today, they’re making less than their rent and bills.

For people like Castro, the Office of Homeless Youth is now planning a direct cash payment, similar to a universal basic income program, a move to “double down on prevention.”

The investment in the office appears to be paying off.

State data show the number of unaccompanied youths or young adults under 25 experiencing homelessness or housing instability dropped 40% between 2016 and 2023 — from 24,043 to 14,303.

This is the most comprehensive assessment of homeless young people in state history. The numbers combine administrative data from homelessness services and health programs like Medicaid.

It’s a shocking decline.

Other counts support this trend. The number of young people becoming homeless after exiting systems like jail, foster care and behavioral health inpatient treatment has also decreased, though less drastically. In 2017, 19% of youths and young adults who exited systems of care were homeless within 12 months. In 2022, that number was 14%.

But many youth homeless service providers, advocates and young people themselves are skeptical.

“I completely believe there has been a reduction but I do not believe it is as high as 40%,” said Natalie Lente, executive director of The Mockingbird Society, a youth homelessness advocacy organization.

YouthCare Executive Director Degale Cooper said that her organization saw fewer young people coming to access services during the pandemic, which would have reduced the number being counted in homelessness administrative data.

However, the decline starts several years before the pandemic and continues through 2023, and the reduction is spread throughout the vast majority of counties.

“The fact that it’s across the board makes it feel a bit more real,” said Amy Dworsky, a youth homelessness researcher at Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago.

Lawmakers are surprised at how much numbers have dropped. They say that seeing investments pay off makes them more willing to continue supporting efforts to reduce youth homelessness.

“We don’t often see the needle being moved quite so far,” Senn said.