January 23 is the fourth annual Count Us In day in King County.
In one 24-hour push, a brigade of County staffers and volunteers scours Seattle’s streets and shelters in search of YYA — that's county-speak for Youth and Young Adults. For the annual count, employees from our parks and public libraries are joined by volunteers from a range of local nonprofits, such as the Asian Counseling & Referral Service and Northwest Network & Queer Youth Space. The information they gather during this day- and night-long mobilization will help county officials get a better handle on how many homeless kids are out there, where they are and whether and how any of our current policies or programs is making a difference.
Last year’s tally was 776. And those homeless youth are spread throughout King County.
The graph below uses zip code data collected in 2013 by the Kirkland-based nonprofit Friends of Youth to convey the geographic sweep of the problem. This is by no means scientifc. Friends of Youth asks the homeless kids it serves to provide a zip code as part of its regular intake process. Kids tend to offer up the zip from "where they grew up," explains Friends of Youth president and CEO Terry Pottmeyer, "or from where they slept on the couch ... or outside the night before." But the zip codes tell a story nonetheless: Homelessness is not just a big city problem.
Map by Kate Thompson. Source: Friends of Youth.
The upscale suburban communities of Redmond, Kirkland and Bellevue are well represented on the FOY zip code index. Of the 498 kids who provided zip codes, 49 listed Redmond, 39 used Kirkland and 27 gave Bellevue. (Seattle zip codes were given by 169 kids.)
King County's 776 total for 2013 is also an estimate. Counting homeless youth is by its nature an inexact science. Even with staff and volunteers from 23 different agencies blanketing 48 different county locations, homeless kids inevitably slip through. Some prefer not to be found; others don’t think of themselves as homeless. Authors of the 2013 report from the King County Committee to End Homelessness acknowledged the inherent imprecision up front: “We don’t know exactly how many young people experience homelessness, but we do know that even one is too many.”
Crosscut has been writing about kids at risk for the last seven months. We began with the foster care system, and we’ll continue exploring that part of the at-risk universe. This month, with support from the Raikes Foundation and Crosscut members, we start reporting on youth homelessness. Unfortunately, it's a natural segue; More than 20 percent of teenagers and young adults who “age out” of foster care (at 18 or 21) wind up in shelters or on the streets.
We may never be able to really end homelessness. There will always be those eventualities that shove a person or a family on the edge over into the chasm: economic downturns, job loss, mental illness, domestic violence, substance abuse. But 776 homeless youth and young adults is a manageable number. As a community, we can fix this. And we should. Because runaway kids are frighteningly vulnerable.
The Seattle Police Department reports that an unaccompanied minor wandering into Westlake Center will get approached by some kind of predator — gang member, drug dealer, pimp — within 45 minutes.
Now, that’s effective outreach. And a daunting challenge for the web of public and private agencies whose mission is to intercept those kids first. Keeping runaways from the clutches of the street is critical, says Melinda Giovengo, executive director of YouthCare, because “the tentacles [of that street life] are long.”
Supporting families is the best way to prevent, or at least minimize youth homelessness, most of which begins with a conflict — between the kid and a parent, stepparent or guardian.
A door slams. And one more kid stomps off into the danger zone.
The vast majority of runaways return home within a day or two. For the ones who don’t the perils are real: drug mule, drug addict, prostitute, sex slave, convict. These are career paths that no parent (stepparent or guardian) dares ponder for their child.
Graphic by Kate Thompson. Source: King County Homeless Youth and Young Adult Initiative, 2013
As you can see from the graphic above, King County's homeless youth and young adults tend to fall into one of three groups: foster care alums (20-plus percent), LBGTQ kids (20-40 percent) and African-Americans (35 percent). In Crosscut’s ongoing series on youth homelessness, you’ll meet and hear from kids in all three of these high-risk populations.
We’ll also explore what happens in that critical 45-minute window. We'll introduce you to street outreach workers, the anti-Fagins who find and direct runaways to safe shelter, and to the public school liaisons who keep homeless students in school and on track. You'll learn about King County's efforts to address the problem, and about innovative, inter-agency programs such as Safe Place, which has turned every Metro bus and county library into a no-questions-asked haven for kids in crisis. Most important, you’ll find out what you can do to help. (We'll also report results of the 2014 Count Us In census when they become available next month.)
So please join us as we continue our exploration of Kids@Risk. The first installment in our youth homelessness series is Rebekah Demirel's first-person account of growing up on the streets of Vancouver, B.C. Look for it tomorrow (Friday) right here at Crosscut.
And we'll share the results of this year's Count Us In census when they become available in early February.
Our homeless youth series is made possible by the generous support of the Raikes Foundation — and Crosscut members.