“I’m not afraid of sleeping outside,” says the scowling, scruffy young man I'll call Ned. He’s homeless because his girlfriend broke up with him and then kept their apartment for herself. He and I are sitting on a damp bench near a U District church, drinking coffee smuggled out of the church’s Sunday social hour.
“I’m comfortable outdoors,” he growls. “Lived in the woods after my dad kicked me out. I was seven at the time. He just couldn’t be around kids. My mom divorced him and couldn't take me with her, and after a while he couldn’t stand me anymore, so I had to live out behind the house. He left food for me on the back porch. I stole apples from his trees. I can live anywhere.”
Ned is 20. He has a slight build, and grimy hands that make him look like he’s been playing in the dirt, but what he's really been up to is planning to get his GED. He’s scored a test-prep manual from Seattle Education Access and signed up there for additional help. I tell him I tutor GED students for free, and when he gives me a sardonic look I add, “But you’re a pretty independent guy.”
“Yeah,” he says, “independent enough to ask for help when I need it. “What’s your phone number?”
Next day my mobile rings. It’s Ned. We make a plan to meet at Starbucks for an hour the following afternoon.
Random encounters with well-meaning adults don’t change the lives of youngsters like Ned. Studies recommend building a research-based continuum of housing and services, and federal funding is now channeled to regions that unite providers into such systems. In King County, the Homeless Youth and Young Adult (YYA) Initiative has joined efforts by the Committee to End Homelessness to turn fragmented homeless programs into well-targeted, economical continuums of care.
The YYA Initiative's Comprehensive Plan has begun by promoting agency coordination, fostering program improvements, collecting relevant data and, of course, marshaling and directing the funds necessary to drive change (see right sidebar). Treating youth homelessness separately, rather than lumping youngsters in with homeless people of all ages (an approach the county took as recently as 1995), is aimed at meeting the distinctive needs of young people.
The goal isn't just managing youth homelessness, as if it's OK for kids to live on the streets as long as not too many minors get frostbite. The goal is reducing the causes of YYA homelessness. The most common are domestic crises in which parents give up on their kids or vice-versa; juvenile justice and foster care systems that abandon youth who serve their time or “age out”; and poor medical care for kids with addictions or psychiatric disorders. Related factors are barriers to finishing school, unemployment and a chronic scarcity of shelters and housing.
A 2020 deadline focuses stakeholders on working with strategic efficiency, even if "ending homelessness" doesn’t mean guaranteeing that nobody will ever camp under a bridge.
“Some kids will always run away from home,” says Megan Gibbard, project manager for the new Initiative. But when they do, “there will be a response system so that they will not have to spend one night on the streets.”
What does Ned need, not just to sleep in safety but to become a self-sufficient adult? According to the federal plan – amended in 2012 to sharpen the focus on youth and young adult homelessness – he needs a constellation of services adding up to something like what other kids get from their church, school, team, after-school or summer job, and, of course, their family. (Fifty-six percent of American 18-24-year-olds live with their parents.) Ned needs education, employment training, health care and practice in the adolescent-stage skills and behavior necessary for functioning in society.
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