WA wants to secure housing for youth exiting state care

The state has renewed efforts to keep kids released from foster care and detention centers from becoming homeless.

Illustration of person encountering a pit while leaving state capitol

Illustration by Valerie Niemeyer

Sitting in her sunny studio apartment in Spokane’s South Hill neighborhood, surrounded by homes she describes as “out of a Pixar movie,” Williams, a 20-year-old community college student, reflected on her accomplishments and challenges.

She’d spent several of her middle school years in foster homes, as her mom struggled with addiction and mental health. Her mother sometimes locked herself inside her room for days and left her children to fend for themselves. Williams’ absentee dad also was addicted, Williams said, asking that her first name not be used to protect her family’s privacy.

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She shuttled between living with her family in her hometown of Yakima and being a ward of the state. When she was 16, Williams was returned to her mother’s custody; then, her clan moved to Spokane for what was supposed to have been a “clean slate.” It was far from that. Sometimes they slept in shelters, sometimes in their van. Eventually, with a Section 8 rental assistance voucher, Williams, her mother, four younger siblings, older sister, older sister’s boyfriend and that couple’s baby crammed into a three-bedroom apartment.

About a year and a half after Williams left the foster care system, her mom kicked her out of the house. “Because I was older,” said Williams, who is on track to earn her associate degree this fall, “I feel like she kind of had the excuse that I was an adult now — to tell me to, kind of, ‘Go and figure things out.’”

Her experience of teetering on the edge of homelessness after being released from state custody makes Williams’ story similar to those of the 17% of Washington youth exiting foster care who, according to the state’s latest estimate, become homeless within one year. Nationally, according to the 2017 Voices of Youth Count from Chapin Hall at University of Chicago, nearly one-third of homeless young people had been in foster care.

Because she’d been homeless earlier in her life, Williams knew where to find resources when she was booted from the family apartment. So, she turned to Catholic Charities, which connected her with Volunteers of America of Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho. It leases and pays part of the rent on Williams’ $700-per-month studio. It’s assigned her a caseworker who helps her find resources, including scholarships. 

Williams’ story is the kind that Washington state lawmakers were intending to replicate for people aged 18 and younger when, in 2018, they passed SB 6560. Taking effect in January 2021, that measure aims to end homelessness among youth leaving child welfare agencies such as foster care, juvenile detention or inpatient mental health treatment, without a parent or guardian to return to. Earlier this year, lawmakers passed a second law, funneling more tools and financial resources into that anti-homelessness program and extending the law’s coverage to those up to age 25.

This article and podcast episode are part of an ongoing series on homelessness in Washington state, done in collaboration with Youth Today. It is made possible in part by support from the Raikes Foundation. Youth Today and Crosscut maintain editorial control. You can read more stories from this series here

Putting more money into housing programs

“We kind of just said it — and hoped it would be true — and never came around to providing the tools,” said State Rep. Tana Senn (D-Mercer Island), of the shortcomings in the first law.

Senn was lead sponsor of HB 1905, resulting in that second law. Implemented in June, it establishes a five-year budget of over $5 million to reduce homelessness among those aforementioned groups. Washington’s Office of Homeless Youth will be responsible for much of that budget, administering $1.6 million in flexible funding that lets people who are allotted those dollars determine how to spend them on transportation, telephone or other everyday expenses. It also will oversee the quadrupling to $2 million of the budget for system of care grants and a $625,000 expansion of the housing stability for justice-involved youth program. The Department of Children, Youth, and Families will convene a new state rapid response team, with a budget of $1 million.

Darla Bardine, executive director of the National Network for Youth, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy and policy group fighting to end youth homelessness, said she is not aware of state-funded flexible funding programs or rapid response teams in other states. “I think we all look to Washington state for passing this type of legislation and, then, also are eager to see ‘How is it implemented? How does this work?’ So that it can be replicated in other states.”


A public health approach to homelessness prevention

The expanded law will bring to six the number of Washington counties that operate the state-funded Housing Stability for Youth in Courts program.

Developed at the University of Washington School of Medicine, that project flags those in the juvenile justice system who might be at risk of homelessness, then assigns a so-called navigator or housing stability coordinator to reach out to those youths and their families, offering to assess their housing needs and provide conflict-resolution services, should families choose to participate in them.  

Housing navigator Haley Brunner, of the YMCA of Greater Seattle’s Social Impact Center, sees the effort as a critical link between youth courts and community agencies. Brunner gave an example of a minor who was being battered by a domestic partner. Family members were nervous about housing the youth, so the minor’s probation counselor, Washington’s version of a probation officer, referred that minor to Brunner, who connected that battered person with housing organizations outside of the YMCA.

“Family conflict accounts for about 60 percent of youth housing instability,” said Sarah Walker, director of the University of Washington CoLab for Community & Behavioral Health Policy. It is evaluating effectiveness and outcomes of the project, which has served nearly 100 families so far. 


Flexible purse strings

The housing stability program has its own flexible funds program, which Sarah Walker calls an attractive, critical feature for program participants.

Shaun Frazier, director of community housing at the YMCA Social Impact Center and Brunner’s boss, agrees with Walker. From covering transportation to cell phone costs, that money can be important, connecting “them to the resources that they need to get to the actual resources.”

A Way Home Washington Executive Director Julie Patiño said the organization’s Anchor Community Initiative has demonstrated repeated success with its own flexible funds for creative solutions, even amid the state’s shortage of affordable housing. For example, a community provider used dollars from the initiative’s homelessness prevention and diversion fund to help a young person’s relative make an unfinished basement habitable, Patiño said.

Multiple providers mentioned the most basic use of flexible funds for “turnkey” money: to pay for first and sometimes last month’s rent plus a security deposit to move into an apartment. Bridget Cannon, senior vice president of youth services at Volunteers of America, which is active in the Spokane Anchor Community Initiative, said it has helped 226 young people.

In 2021, 90% of the 446 families with youth and young adults in Pierce, Spokane, Walla Walla and Yakima counties who received helped from the initiative’s homelessness prevention and diversion fund found safe, stable housing. When it launched the fund in 2020, the Anchor Community Initiative set out to limit the number of young people returning to homelessness within three months of being released from state custody to 25% of those served. Just 3% became homeless again, Patiño said.

Providers also use the funding to help pay for family support services and behavioral health treatment for individuals and/or families, particularly for financially struggling families who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid benefits that pay for such treatment, according to the University of Washington’s Walker and Tim Meliah, director of Catholic Charities Walla Walla.

Some anti-homelessness programs are going further. In New York City, Point Source Youth, through its Trust Youth initiative, recently began providing regular cash payments directly to 18- through 24-year-olds. That initiative’s goal is to put them on track to exit homelessness permanently.

While that effort involving young people is a relatively new approach, other cash transfers to low-income adults and families have shown good results, said Anne Farrell, director of research at the University of Chicago Chapin Hall, which co-designed and is evaluating Trust Youth.


Connecting silos

The state agency rapid response team created by the new law allows the Department of Children, Youth, and Families; Office of Homeless Youth; Health Care Authority; and Department of Social and Health Services to develop a system to identify young people at risk, plan their transition out of state custody and locate services aimed at creating some stability for them.

It’s a way of tackling what’s seen as a lack of collaboration between systems that, for example, make it hard to find a residence for a child being released from a behavioral health facility whose family doesn’t want that child to return home. Similarly, there are challenges when parents or guardians are not able or willing to consent to their offspring staying in a shelter, but those youths cannot legally give their own consent.

“What 1905 and other bills are pointing at, we struggle with internally,” said Allison Krutsinger, the Department of Children, Youth, and Families’ director of government affairs and community engagement. “Advocates are pushing us to say, ‘Then who's responsible for these kids? And how do we make sure they get what they need?’ The state doesn't have a good answer right now.”

But the rapid response team and other legislative changes should help, Krutsinger added.

Other states are watching how Washington’s connected, collaborative programs fare, University of Chicago researcher Farrell said. Washington, he added, is modeling how to “look across systems to identify young people and make sure that that information follows them — not in a way that feels like unhelpful surveillance but one that feels like solid support.”

The additional money for Office of Homeless Youth-administered care grants should also help bridge public systems with private homelessness services. In the past two years, three system of care grants focused on the juvenile justice system.

In Spokane, state funds have paid for Volunteers of America case managers to run two apartments for young adults up to 25 years old and assist those still in juvenile rehabilitation.

Kim Justice, executive director of the state’s Office of Homeless Youth, said her agency was looking forward to expanding those grants to identify and support young people exiting behavioral health, child welfare and other homelessness services. That support includes “family reconciliation, education, employment, really whatever they need in order to have a successful transition and come back to the community and have safe and stable housing,” said Justice. “If we can prevent even a single experience of homelessness, that’s what we’re aiming for.”


How housing help might alter lives

Joe, 21, said he spent several years slipping in and out of homelessness before moving into one of Voice of America’s apartments at The Bridge earlier this year.

In high school, he received inpatient mental health treatment. After graduating, he left his parents’ home. They were too controlling, he said, and his father sometimes abused him, physically and verbally.

Joe, who asked that his real name not be used, given what he views as the stigma of homelessness and mental illness, said drugs and alcohol were his means of coping with not having shelter and being assaulted. “It's really, really hard. … People will judge a lot of homeless people for being addicts. But you try sleeping on the sidewalk without getting high. Like, it's kind of one of the only ways to, like, not just wanna die all the time.”

Joe is a transmasculine nonbinary person who identifies either as male or no gender at all. He said he doesn’t trust strangers and is unlikely to ever stay at the typical shelter. He didn’t know of any LGBTQ-friendly homeless shelters in Spokane. When a friend told him about The Bridge apartments, where case management for previously homeless tenants also is provided, he was immediately interested.  

Nick Hughes, a case manager at The Bridge, called Joe's experiences textbook. “Joe entered homelessness because of situations that were out of Joe's control, having to do with mental health and identity issues that created tension in his family.” 

If, previously, he had assistance paying his rent, Joe said he wouldn’t have felt compelled to do what he called degrading online sex work to pay the bills. “I could have just focused on the things that I actually wanted to do to better myself.”

He now plans to build an art business and hopes to soon get a Section 8 voucher to help assure he’s housed long-term.

“So often,” case manager Hughes said, noting Joe’s improved circumstances and state of mind, “many people are one mental health crisis away from being homeless. But when housing is guaranteed ... it gives the space for resiliency to grow."

For Williams, having her own place has been a game-changer, letting her more easily focus on a future that includes enrolling for her bachelor’s degree at Eastern Washington University this coming winter.

“If I didn’t have this,” she said, of her studio apartment, “I don’t think I would have ever gotten out of the situation I was in, which was really not how I wanted to live my life. ... Having a place to live, and having things, and having access to things I need to be able to succeed — like, literally the smallest, most basic things — [has] helped so much.”

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