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King County’s plan to end youth homelessness – by 2020

A new plan gets aggressive - and organized - about helping homeless youth. Credit: Credit: Elvert Barnes/Flickr

There were 776 homeless and unstably housed kids and young adults in King County last January. That’s according to a recently released study from the county’s Committee to End Homelessness.

The committee wants that number to be zero by 2020. And it has a plan.

Working with a coalition of government and nonprofit agencies, the committee developed the Comprehensive Plan to End Youth and Young Adult Homelessness in King County by 2020 earlier this year. The plan would create new programs to reconnect homeless young people with their families, improve data collection on homeless youth and expand shelter space, while also promoting closer collaboration between government agencies, nonprofit organizations and funders.

“There have been agencies doing this work in King County for a long time,” says Megan Gibbard, Homeless Youth and Young Adult Project Manager at King County’s Housing and Community Program. “Local leadership said, ‘we need to be better coordinated because we’re all seeing the same kids.’”

The new plan is expected to cost the county $1.47 million in its first 18 months. The new projects and programs funded by the plan are expected to roll out next spring.

The County Housing Authority, Seattle Housing Authority, the United Way and the Schultz Family Foundation have already committed $620,000 to fund housing voucher and rental assistance programs. The committee has also lined up an additional $170,000 to subsidize shelter expansions and programs to help existing street-level organizations reach minority and LGBTQ youth. The remaining $680,000 (of the $1.47 million total) will come from a combination of public and private funders.

Reuniting homeless kids with their families is a clear priority. It won’t be easy. “We know most kids won’t be saying when they walk through the door, ‘reconnect with me with my mother,’” Gibbard acknowledges. Still, “if it’s possible for that connection to be safe, we want that to be the answer. We can’t build our way out of youth homelessness.”

Family reunification is hardly a new idea. “We’ve been reconnecting kids with their families for 30 years,” says Terry Pottmeyer, President of Friends of Youth, an organization that works with over 2,500 homeless youths in north and east King County each year. But she adds, “Having that system wide is really important.”

Sean Walsh, Associate Executive with the Metrocenter YMCA, was part of the workgroup discussions that produced the Plan to End Youth and Young Adult Homelessness. He helps oversee programs at the YMCA that are focused on family reunification. Walsh says it’s important to train staff so that they recognize when they need to bring in a case manager or licensed social worker to help young people through the process of reconnecting with family, which can be emotionally fraught.

“Issues may come up with a youth that’s been through a lot of trauma,” he says. “Having somebody there to identify what kinds of clinical issues might be there is really important.”

During the workgroup discussions, Walsh and other YMCA staffers pushed for more flexible and comprehensive programs. “For me,” says Walsh, “the added value of this [End Youth Homelessness] plan is that it seeks to integrate a lot of things: employment, employment readiness, family reunification and health. A lot of times in the past, our community approached these things more in silos.”

When the committee first began working on the plan, information about King County’s homeless youth population was sparse. One of the committee’s first steps was to collect baseline data. In doing so it found that last Jan., 114 of the 776 homeless and unstably housed young people in the county truly had no home, while 182 of the 776 had stayed with a family member the night before they were surveyed. The committee also found that 51 percent of the county’s homeless and unstably housed youth are female, 60 percent are kids of color and 23 percent are LGBTQ.

The committee will continue to improve the quality and amount of data on youth homelessness as the project develops. The county and several nonprofit partners are working on a database that will allow youths to check-in when they visit a shelter or service-provider facility. The systemwide check-in promises to cut-down on the redundant collection of information and will give providers and policymakers a better idea of how many kids are using services. And whenever young people enter their information into the database they will be asked about whether they want to reconnect with their families.

Another component of the plan is the already funded rental assistance program. The Seattle and King County Housing Authorities will provide Section 8 housing vouchers to young people who are transitioning out of shelters. Seattle’s vouchers currently offer up to $771 for a studio apartment and $879 for a one bedroom. Seattle will provide five vouchers, and the county 15.

Housing efforts directed at providing new shelter space will focus on South Seattle and South King County. “There is just not enough capacity in South King County,” says Gibbard. “They’re working on half a shoestring down there.” According to Terry Pottmeyer, kids who can’t find shelter space in the southern part of the county often end up in facilities up north or on the eastside. That kind of displacement can be a problem.

“Kids do better if they stay connected to their communities,” says Pottmeyer, who praised the plan’s region-wide perspective. “People think there are no homeless youth on the Eastside. But it’s a problem in every zip code.”

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