The Time Is Right for Sustainable Change

Our Executive Director, Jim Theofelis, has dedicated his life to helping young people, as an advocate, a clinician and a leader in the movement to reform foster care and end youth and young adult homelessness. Previously, Jim shared why the time is right for solutions in Washington and why solutions must lead to systemic and structural change. Today, Jim shares what sustainable change means to him.

When I think about the reasons why I do this work, I think about the 16-year-old experiencing homelessness today. I also think about how this work will help the 5-year-old who doesn’t know that they may be vulnerable to homelessness one day. To me, sustainability means that our work will help young people today, tomorrow and into the future. The systems we help create to serve young people must continue to exist even as time passes, staff changes and organizations change.

I’m inspired by the Haudenosaunee Confederacy’s Seventh Generation value when I think about building a system that will serve young people today and will continue serving young people for years to come. The Haudenosaunee Confederacy is made of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca peoples, whose Constitution influenced the very Constitution we follow today. Their Seventh Generation value states that for any decision we make, we must consider the impact it will have today and for generations into the future.   

We need to adopt this same perspective in our work. We need to think about how our decisions will not just impact the lives of young people and families accessing resources today, but seven generations from now as well. This means that we need to be honest and truly ask ourselves whether today’s systems were created to serve all young people and families equitably, and acknowledge the ways in which the LGBTQ+ community and people of color have historically been underserved and at times even harmed by public systems.  We cannot forget this history when we make decisions today so we can do better by all families.

In the past few years, I’ve seen hopeful signs that as a state we’ve started to adopt this forward thinking. I worked on and applaud the creation of the Office of Homeless Youth Prevention and Protection Programs (OHY) to carry this work forward at the state level. OHY will continue to award grants, hold state level relationships and advocate for preventing and ending youth and young adult homelessness far into the future. Together, we have advocated for Anchor Community Initiative funding in the state budget, leading to $4 million dedicated to services in communities around Washington.

Jim presents a Mockingbird Youth Leadership award to Ryan Tobiasson, Spokane Mockingbird Chapter and Anchor Community team member

And nothing gives me more hope for the future than seeing more and more organizations realizing that we need young people’s leadership and involvement if we want to create a system that works for them. When I founded The Mockingbird Society, compensating young people for their expertise and input was a new and innovative idea. Now, instances of tokenism and pizza instead of real compensation grow more and more rare, and genuine partnership with young people is becoming the expectation. Young people’s wisdom and experience is increasingly shaping community plans and programs meant to last generations.

I’ve heard many young people and their families say that they need access to resources and support before even entering any systems. We need to look upstream at solutions like diversion and school support to truly help all young people and families. Well-funded and accessible diversion programs can make the difference between keeping stable housing and facing homelessness for families who need these resources. And as the first point of contact for many youth, schools that have the resources and capacity to support young people experiencing homelessness or housing instability have the potential to quickly connect families to services and resources. These types of interventions can help us strengthen families and prevent homelessness.

We can’t stop doing this work until we can answer the question “Who do our systems serve?” with “Everyone.” And once we achieve this goal, we need to make sure we’re prepared to carry this work forward at all levels. We need to do it for the 16-year-old experiencing homelessness today, for the 5-year-old whose future our decisions will impact, and for the next seven generations. That’s what sustainable change really looks like.

Meet Our Student Stability Manager!

Working with schools is critical to ending youth and young adult homelessness. Megan Johnson joins the Anchor Community Initiative as the Student Stability Manager to create and implement a schools strategy. Megan tells us why this issue is so important to her, and why we need to work with schools to achieve our mission.

Throughout my career, I’ve always been interested in empowering people. As an addiction counselor, I wanted to empower my clients to take the steps they needed to live the lives they wanted. When I went back to school for a Master’s in Public Administration, I was driven by my belief that effective policy driven by the voices of those who are impacted can empower entire communities.

My graduate program required a Master’s thesis, and at first I thought my thesis would be about equity in the workplace. I wanted to focus on wages, and how they had not kept up with the cost of living in the region over the past thirty years, leading to homelessness, poverty, and a host of other social problems.  That was my plan  up until the very day we had to discuss our thesis topics in class. I remember I was driving to Seattle University and I was sitting at a stoplight on James Street, listening to a story on NPR about students experiencing homelessness in Washington State.

Megan, her dad and her stepmom on her graduation day

The story started talking about Schoolhouse Washington data, and how around our state approximately 40,000 youth ages 12-18 are experiencing homelessness on any given night.  Maybe I was tired after a long day, or maybe the topic just hit close to home, or most likely both, but I started crying.  To me, that statistic was unacceptable. We cannot allow tens of thousands of children and youth to live without a stable place to call home during their formative years. So, on my way to class, I decided to change my thesis topic and focus on student homelessness instead.

As I worked on my thesis, I saw firsthand how deep inequity runs in our systems. Across different school districts, schools around the state vary wildly in their resources to support students experiencing homelessness and in their capacity to apply for grants. These disparities lead to vastly different outcomes for students of color and students in rural communities – Schoolhouse Washington recently reported that six out of ten students experiencing homelessness are students of color, and that students in rural areas experience homelessness at a higher rate.  These appalling statistics propel me. They drive me to devote my work to this issue because students of all races, ethnicities, gender identities, religions and housing circumstances deserve equitable access to education.

To end youth and young adult homelessness, we need to work in partnership with the school system. Many times, school is the only constant place for students experiencing homelessness. We need buy in from all levels, from superintendents to McKinney Vento liaisons. My work will focus on developing strategies to work with all these important stakeholders at every stage of the Anchor Community Initiative. As we continue to work towards quality, real-time data, it is imperative to work with schools to ensure unaccompanied students experiencing homelessness are included in the By-Name List. Once we have quality data and we begin working on reducing homelessness, we need to partner with schools to implement improvement projects that will reduce student homelessness.

I’m excited to be part of a project with a data-driven approach. Student homelessness exists in every community in our state, and data will help everyone in our state understand that. I am optimistic that our state cares for young people, and that the community will rally to improve outcomes for all students. It is up to every person in Washington state to improve outcomes for all youth and young adults.

What Youth Partnership Means to Us

At A Way Home Washington, our core values include equity, youth partnership, a data-driven culture and trauma-informed practice. Our Coaching and Improvement Manager, Ashley, writes about what youth partnership means at A Way Home Washington.

In the youth homelessness world, we know that we need the expertise of young people with lived experience to improve systems. Throughout my entire career, I’ve worked in spaces that seek to empower youth. In that time, I’ve seen my share of missteps when it comes to youth engagement, and I’ve seen what it takes to achieve positive youth engagement.

 Some organizations operate under the premise that any access to leadership opportunities is good for young people, even when they haven’t had a say in shaping these opportunities. I’ve been shocked to see organizations lead Youth Advocacy Days with no policy agenda, much less one written by young people. In these instances, the opportunity to talk to state representatives is seen as benefit enough for young people.

On the other hand, I’ve also seen organizations gather input and recommendations from young people only to keep them out of project implementation. I remember one focus group where young people were invited to give their interpretation of a third-party dataset, and they spoke passionately on the topic. Afterwards, the facilitators never followed up with young people as they wrote a report based on their insights – a report that continues to be referenced nationally. I’ve seen this type of situation time and time again, where young people deliver important insights without their expertise being valued in the same way as that of older folks. They don’t get to own the ideas or products they’ve informed, and they’re not treated as partners in the work.

In a sector that’s committed to youth voice, choice and leadership, we can’t keep repeating these patterns. Young people with diverse experiences and identities must be involved in our work from idea to implementation. In these instances, young people can grow their skills, build connections and move toward stability, AND our systems improve through their involvement.

In the Anchor Community Initiative, we are working alongside young people and the community to re-imagine what co-creation means. Each Anchor Community team includes at least two young people with lived experience, and in the next phase of work we want to take youth partnership to the next level by:

Ashley poses for a selfie with Sierra, one of our youth partnership consultants

1)      Engaging a diverse group of young people. We’re building out youth engagement plans to make sure that multiple young people, with a diversity of experiences and identities, are involved in Anchor Community work.

2)      Developing young people as co-leaders. We’re helping communities move beyond simply having youth representation on their teams, and into co-creating meeting agendas, co-facilitating meetings and having key roles in the implementation of improvement projects.

I am thankful that it’s becoming the norm in the youth homelessness world to include young people with lived experience in the creation of the systems that will impact their lives. It is heartening to see older folks invite young people to their meetings and initiatives. But we need to be clear that this is only the first step in our journey to co-creating solutions with young people.

When we work with young people, we need to let go of the expectation that they need to adapt to older folks’ way of doing things. Our workplace norms were created according to the dominant culture – that means they align to the preferences of men, white people, older adults and so on. If we’re serious about working in partnership with young people – and to end youth and young adult homelessness we have to be! – we need to co-create spaces so everyone can be a full, respected participant in the process.

Why We Say Latinx

As an organization, we value equity and engaging communities in culturally sensitive ways. Our Communications Director, Sully, reflects on the importance of the words we use in our efforts to be an equitable and inclusive organization.

As a communications professional and an advocate for racial equity, I know that words have power. I carefully consider what every word I write for A Way Home Washington conveys about our organization’s values. I will always write about young people experiencing homelessness – not about “kids” or “the homeless” – because our values reject adultism and dehumanization. That care went into choosing the word Latinx for our organizational voice.

At the Central American Festival with a fellow Panamanian wearing one of our traditional dresses

I’ve spent a long time thinking about what it means to be Latinx. I was born and raised in Panama, and for the first nineteen years of my life, I was simply Panamanian. I moved to the United States as a college student, and I remember the exact moment when I realized that here, my identity was more complicated. My university offered a course called Hispanic Marketing, and a classmate asked me if I could complete a survey for US Hispanics to help her with an assignment for that course. As an international student, I did not feel that I fit in that label. But my classmate assured me that anyone living in the United States with ties to Latin America was considered a US Hispanic.

Since then, so many layers and nuance have been added to the way I identify. In my heart, I will always be Panamanian. But after ten years in the United States, I’ve learned that when people of color stand together, we are much stronger in our fight for justice. So I also identify as an immigrant, a person of color and a Latinx person.

I chose the word Latinx for myself because it aligns with my values. It is a word that was created by the community, unlike Hispanic, which was created by the US government. Spanish is a gendered language where every noun is either masculine or feminine, including nouns used to refer to people like Latino and Latina. When there is a group of mixed gender, even if it is a group of 9 people who identify as female and one who identifies as male, the group is always referred to as masculine. Using Latino to refer to the whole community centers masculinity, while Latinx decenters masculinity. Latinx also makes room for all gender identities and expressions since it is neither a masculine nor a feminine word. In a culture where LGBTQ+ identity is still stigmatized, I find it very important to stand with people who identify outside the gender binary. For all these reasons, it also felt right to choose Latinx for A Way Home Washington.

Now, it’s important to also recognize that the Latinx community is made of people with a wide variety of experiences, opinions and stories. That means that there is no community consensus on how to label our identity – look no further than the comment thread on any community website that uses the word Latinx to see the full range of emotion it stirs up. When it comes to individual people, we should always refer to them using the words they choose for themselves. But when we talk about the whole community, I choose the word that is most inclusive.

Racial equity is a journey with lots of learning along the way. That means we always need to be open to hearing different ways of thinking. Recently, I’ve been reflecting on the idea that words like Latino and Latinx erase the indigenous roots of so many people from Latin America. If a few years from now, the community creates a new term that is even more inclusive than Latinx, my understanding of my identity and my community may continue to evolve, and the words I choose may change. Until then, I continue to be fiercely, proudly, loudly Latinx.

Getting an Initiative Started

When we’re working towards a big goal – like, let’s say, ending youth and young adult homelessness – choosing where to start can be the most challenging step. We ask ourselves, will this first step lead to the change we want to see? Our team learned how to answer this tricky question when Community Solutions trained us on continuous quality improvement.

The concept behind continuous quality improvement is simple: If you want to improve a process, test a small change. If you see improvement, stick with it and test it on a larger scale. If you don’t see improvement, try something else. The key is to clearly define what improvement means and to start with small changes that are easy to implement. For example, an organization with the goal of serving more young people per day could start by testing a new version of their intake questionnaire and measuring the impact this has on their results.

Our expert paper plane engineers

To help us really grasp the concept, Community Solutions gave us an assignment: Make a paper plane and measure how far it flies. Then, make small changes to the plane design with the goal of flying it farther. With our limited knowledge of physics and the laws of aerodynamics, we set out to fly a paper plane farther than any nonprofit ever has before! We’re not sure if we set any records, but we did learn some important lessons about testing changes and measuring impact:

  1. Test one change at a time. We decided that the smaller and lighter a plane, the farther it must fly. So, we cut slits in the plane’s wings and we cut the plane shorter. It was…unsuccessful. And we realized that by testing two changes at once, we couldn’t tell which of these changes was the culprit. Similarly, if an organization tries changing their intake questionnaire AND making it available online at the same time, it would be hard to tell which change impacted results.
  2. Some changes are hard to undo. Once we cut a third of our plane off, there was no going back. If we wanted a full-size plane again, we had to start over. Before testing a change, organizations must consider whether it’s possible to go back on it if it doesn’t lead to improvement.
  3. The importance of iterating. We realized that drastic changes were delaying our process since we had to start over if they didn’t work. We shifted our focus to small, incremental changes. Let’s say that changing the intake questionnaire did help the organization serve more young people per day. Then, making the questionnaire accessible through other channels, like the organization’s website, can be a second, separate change to test.

With continuous quality improvement, choosing where to start becomes less intimidating. It helps us realize that our first step is simply one of many possibilities that we can test. If it leads to results, that’s wonderful! We can continue down that path. But if it doesn’t? That just means it’s time to try something new.

What Equity Means to Us

At A Way Home Washington, our core values include equity, positive youth development, a data-driven culture and trauma-informed practice. Our Deputy Director, Erin, writes about what equity means at A Way Home Washington.

There’s a quote attributed to Maya Angelou that I love: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” The idea that we have to start where we are, and then hold ourselves accountable to change course as we learn and grow, makes me think about A Way Home Washington’s journey towards equity. We embarked on this journey with an understanding that learning and growth are part of the process, and that new information and new voices at the table are necessary to strengthen our work.

We need to center equity in our work because without equity we cannot end youth and young adult homelessness. In our state and around the country, young people of color – especially Black, Latinx and Native young people – are overrepresented in homelessness. And nationwide, about 40% of youth and young adults experiencing homelessness identify as LGBTQ+ according to True Colors United. We need to understand and acknowledge these facts, and then actively work to undo the various forms of systemic racism and oppression that lead to these outcomes.

Putting our heads together at an Equity Committee meeting

A critical part of our journey towards equity has been forming an internal Equity Committee, and co-creation has been a key principle of this committee. Critical race scholar john a. powell says that othering is a part of oppression, and the antidote to othering is fostering a sense of belonging. Belonging, powell argues, comes from co-creation. The Equity Committee is open to any and all staff, and together we’ve created a set of values that drive our work: equity, positive youth development, trauma-informed practice and data-driven culture.

I was an enthusiastic founding member of the Equity Committee because I genuinely wanted to hear from my colleagues what equity meant to them, and how they wanted this work to come alive. I know I don’t have all the answers, and my own knowledge and experiences are limited. I need each of my coworkers’ unique brilliance and insight to teach me and help me grow, to complement and improve me. This work moves our team forward so we can achieve more just, equitable outcomes for young people.

Ending youth and young adult homelessness will take everything we’ve got. We need everyone on the A Way Home Washington team and our external partners to feel a sense of shared ownership and responsibility to achieve our mission. We must commit to continuously improving our own understanding of equity and model this value for stakeholders around the state. And we must hold ourselves accountable in the same way we ask others to be. This work will help us understand the unique needs of young people of color and those who identify as LGBTQ+ so that we can help them find safe, stable housing and a path forward in their lives.  

The Time Is Right for Structural Change

Throughout my career, I’ve observed an unfortunate truth – some young people are further from justice than others. Experiencing homelessness is traumatic for any young person. But if we look at the data, we’ll see that young people of color and those who identify as LGBTQ+ are overrepresented in homelessness. From the time I was a little boy, I started to see the structural issues that lead to these outcomes.

During my early childhood years, my family lived in the High Point “projects” in West Seattle.  Being one of the few white families in the neighborhood, I sensed that not everyone in my community was treated the same. High Point was considered low-income housing, and I saw how some of my friends’ families were scrutinized by government social workers. This scrutiny and these policies had a traumatic impact on my little friends and their families, and they constantly navigated this struggle with retaining their government assistance.

As a little boy, I didn’t have the words to describe what I was seeing, but I knew that my friends were treated differently because they happened to be black or Native American. As an adult, I realized that what I witnessed as a child was systemic racism.

We live in a white dominant culture where simply existing as a person of color can be penalized by our systems. For generations, redlining, employment discrimination and discrimination by the child welfare and other systems blocked families of color from the opportunities that my own family could access. My neighbors’ fears were not due to any acts of child neglect or abuse. They were afraid because their homes could be deemed unfit simply because they were not white, middle-class homes. I’ll never forget how my friends of color and their families were the most afraid when “the white lady” was coming – the government social worker who inspected their homes.

Even back then, this was nothing new – it stemmed all the way back to indigenous children separated from their families and put in boarding schools, and the horrors of killing the Indian to save the child. But it has gone on too long, and it’s time for structural change.

When we strengthen families, we help prevent youth and young adult homelessness. And in order to strengthen all families, including families of color, we need structural change. We need to differentiate between child abuse and neglect and poverty. Rather than breaking families apart because of their economic conditions, we need to invest in resources that will help break cycles of intergenerational poverty.

The good news is, I see signs of change that will help strengthen families. At the federal level, the Family First Prevention Services Act directs child welfare resources toward keeping families together. Previously, child welfare agencies only received funding after children were removed from their families.

In our state, the Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) has implemented the Family Assessment Response (FAR) with the goal of ensuring both child safety and family integrity. These assessments look into the underlying causes of situations that may look like child neglect on the surface. For example, if a parent leaves their child unsupervised because they need to work multiple jobs and have no access to childcare, the solution is not to remove the child from the home. The solution is to connect the family to resources that will help them. These are the types of outcomes that FAR is meant for.

To achieve structural change, we need to start seeing all young people as ours. If we fell on hard times, would we want our families to be torn apart? Would we want help for our families, or separation? Of course we would want to stay with our families, and help getting back on our feet. This approach is both much more moral and makes better economic sense in the short and long run.  Let’s start advocating for all families to have the resources we would want for our own!

Check out why Jim also says the time is right for solutions and systemic change.

Anchor Communities Receive $4 Million

During the 2019 legislative session, we were overjoyed that the Office of Homeless Youth (OHY) budget included $4 million for the Anchor Community Initiative. Over the past few months, organizations in the Anchor Communities submitted proposals to OHY requesting funding for services in the community. Here’s how these funds will make an impact in each community:

Pierce County

Pierce County will be able to expand their existing outreach team, creating a 24/7 emergency hotline, training staff in diversion and gaining access to coordinated entry. The community will also be able to establish a young adult shelter, which previously had no permanent location.

Spokane

New outreach efforts put forth will be able to more efficiently identify young people experiencing homelessness in the public school system and behavioral health treatment programs and provide resources to quickly house them. Volunteers of America and the City of Spokane will add 10 new units of transitional housing for young adults, including units that provide medium to long-term rental assistance (usually 18 to 24 months) and support services to help young adults develop the independent living skills needed to secure and maintain permanent housing.

Walla Walla

Previously, young people in Walla Walla had access to HOPE beds through Catholic Charities and young adult long-term housing through Blue Mountain Action Council (BMAC). Now BMAC will be able to add housing capacity for young adults and create an outreach team to better connect with young people.

Yakima

New funding will allow Rod’s House to open a shelter and increase outreach coverage and drop-in services. Catholic Charities will be able to increase young adult housing and Yakima Neighborhood Health Services will increase LGBTQ+ support services.

We’re excited to see these funds building capacity in Anchor Communities as we continue our work to end youth and young adult homelessness!

Bringing All Systems Together

One of the most important features of a quality By-Name List is making sure it includes ALL unaccompanied youth and young adults experiencing homelessness. Not only does the list tell us how many young people are experiencing homelessness in the community, it also gives us important information about each individual young person, like their location and how long they have been experiencing homelessness.

Creating a comprehensive By-Name List takes a lot of teamwork. No one organization interacts with every young person in need, so the entire community needs to work together to make sure the list is comprehensive. Local school districts, child welfare and juvenile justice systems are key players in reaching quality, real-time data. All Anchor Community teams have been working hard to establish data sharing protocols across different systems, and we caught up with Walla Walla to hear more about the challenges they’ve found and solutions they’re testing to overcome barriers.

“We’re seeing a real need for agencies to adopt their own policies that really connect young people to the By-Name List and the homeless crisis response system,” said Sierra Knutson, Homeless & Housing Coordinator at Walla Walla County Dept. of Community Health and part of the Anchor Community team. “Staff are working really hard every day to serve young people, so it can be difficult to add another task to their long list of responsibilities.”

Aside from finding ways to incorporate the By-Name List into multiple agencies’ work, concerns over data security and privacy are another challenge faced by communities. They’ve heard from young people that keeping their information private is important.

“Young people are afraid that being on the By-Name List means they’ll be reported to the authorities,” said Sierra. “Given our community’s history of placing youth in detention to keep them off the streets, I understand their concern. We’re working on rebuilding that trust.”

When Anchor Communities committed to ending youth and young adult homelessness in their community by 2022, they committed to facing these challenges head on. Walla Walla is no exception, and the community is testing different solutions to overcome these obstacles. To start, they developed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that will allow any organization that signs on to participate in the By-Name List. The community has obtained signatures from about half of the organizations in their work group, and while the rest wait for approvals the Anchor Community team is wasting no time testing other solutions.

Walla Walla’s new Program Coordinator, Sam!

“We now have the opportunity to add capacity to our team, and I’m hopeful that our new Program Coordinator, Samantha, will be able to really dig deeper into ways that we can collaborate across systems,” said Sierra. “We’re also eager to learn from other organizations in the community, so we will begin shadowing Supportive Services for Veteran Families case managers to build on their best practices for case conferencing.”

It’s inspiring to see all Anchor Communities thinking creatively and working unrelentingly to overcome challenges. We deeply appreciate all the work they do to end youth and young adult homelessness in our state!

Partner Spotlight: CCYJ on Justice for LGBTQ+ Young People

When we talk about the thousands of unaccompanied youth and young adults experiencing homelessness in our state, it’s critical to talk about the young people who are overrepresented in homelessness. Across the country, LGBTQ+ young people make up roughly 5-10% of the population, but 40% of young people experiencing homelessness identify as LGBTQ+. We cannot ignore this injustice if we truly want to do right by all young people.

The Center for Children and Youth Justice (CCYJ) launched eQuality in 2013, a project to better understand the needs of LGBTQ+ youth and find better ways to serve them across different systems. We caught up with Nicholas Oakley, Sr. Programs Manager/Policy Counsel, to hear more about the project.

The faces behind eQuality at their team convening

“All aspects of a young person’s identity impact their experiences and their outcomes,” said Nicholas. “The moment we create safe, affirming environments for LGBTQ+ young people, we’re creating a path for them thrive.”

Through eQuality, CCYJ has spoken to LGBTQ+ individuals with personal experience in the juvenile justice and child welfare systems, as well as system professionals and service providers. The organization created the Protocol for Safe and Affirming Care based on these findings. The protocol includes asking all youth their sexual orientation and gender identity when they access services or systems.

“You don’t count unless you’re counted,” said Nicholas. “We need data to show that safe and affirming services for LGBTQ+ young people are a pressing need across all systems.”

The data collected by the eQuality project confirms the intersection between LGBTQ+ identity and homelessness. Any effort to end youth and young adult homelessness needs to serve the needs of the LGBTQ+ community, and our Anchor Community Initiative is no exception. The first step of our work is achieving quality, real-time data, and part of this milestone means that Anchor Communities must collect sexual orientation and gender identity data in a culturally appropriate and responsive way.

LGBTQ+ young people live in every community, and they deserve to have their identities valued. Service providers and state agencies need to invest in educating staff at all levels on the importance of affirming LGBTQ+ young people’s identities and training staff to serve these young people with respect. The impact of culturally competent service cannot be overstated – for instance, calling transgender teens by their chosen name lowers suicide rates.

“At a time when identity politics are under attack, we need to stand up for LGBTQ+ young people,” said Nicholas. “This is not a political issue. This is an issue of our young people’s health, safety and well-being.”