Last week, Governor Jay Inslee signed into law landmark legislation to help some of our state’s most vulnerable residents — the thousands of young people between 12 and 24 years of age who experience the crisis of homelessness entirely on their own. The Homeless Youth Act, which creates a central office within the Department of Commerce to help coordinate our state’s response to the issue, builds on the momentum we’ve seen locally in King County. Our journey to make youth homelessness rare, brief and a one-time occurrence is still underway, but this legislative milestone offers an opportunity to reflect on our progress to date and reaffirm our resolve for the task ahead.
In 2011, the Raikes Foundation joined with other philanthropists, service providers and community leaders to strengthen the systems that provide the stability, safety and support young people need to permanently exit homelessness. Like any systems-building work, it has been a community-wide effort to align likeminded allies, attract new ones and provide the structures and funding needed to maximize our collective work. Together, we have increased our understanding of the issue, created a data-driven comprehensive plan to address it and attracted almost $5 million in new funding from the public and private sectors.
Although still nascent in many ways, King County’s collaborative, systems-oriented approach to youth homelessness is already heralded as a model for other communities around the state and country. For example, Megan Gibbard, who leads our region’s youth homelessness work, will speak at a White House convening this week to share insights from our experience. This sort of recognition in Olympia and Washington, D.C. is the well-deserved result of hard work and dedication, but it’s also an indicator that our community is poised to enter a new chapter that delivers even stronger youth-level outcomes. We can do this in a few ways.
First, we can prevent more young people from experiencing homelessness in the first place. This is an important component of the Homeless Youth Act, which identifies our state’s commitment to ensure young people in its care don’t exit into homelessness. Today, about 35 percent of young people who exit foster care experience homelessness within a year. In addition to working with the state to curb this flow, we can do more to identify how the juvenile justice system and schools can identify and support young people who are at risk of experiencing homelessness.
Second, we can further refine and improve the supply of programs and services available to homeless youth so that it matches their individual needs. This is about more than just adding shelter beds or service slots. We need to strengthen our understanding of what solutions work for which kids, so we’re leveraging existing programs and services where they exist and creating innovative new solutions where they’re needed. Our challenge now is to ensure our service providers are equipped with the right amount and the right mix of options needed to help the young people they serve.
Third, we can still make our system more efficient at matching homeless young people with the services they need. Even the best supply of services and housing options means little unless frontline staff are empowered to quickly connect young people to them. Days spent on a wait list for housing or services can mean the difference between a successful transition to stability and the exposure to drugs, violence and exploitation that often leads to chronic homelessness. Regardless of whether young people enter the system through a provider in Seattle, Bellevue or Auburn, they should have timely and equitable access to the resources they need to permanently exit homelessness.
Lastly, we must continue to learn from and share our experiences. Our commitment to continuous learning is why the regional youth homelessness plan led by the King County Committee to End Homelessness recently underwent a refresh to incorporate all we’ve learned in the two years since it was first implemented. These lessons also have applicability well beyond our county or state, which is why we’re increasingly engaging with and learning from other communities focused on this issue. Youth homelessness isn’t confined by city, county or state lines, so our collaborations can’t be either.
As we enter a new chapter in this important work, I’m immensely proud of and honored to work alongside the providers, philanthropists, advocates, policymakers and young people themselves who have helped us reach this point in King County. The impact of our work has already extended beyond our county and I know our most important accomplishments are yet to come. Ultimately, our investments in these young people today are investments in the future of our community. As a philanthropist, mother and a voter, I consider that money well spent.