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.

The Time is Right for Systemic 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. Today, Jim shares why solutions must lead to systemic change.

By now, I’ve made my optimism for ending youth and young adult homelessness clear – I know the time is right for solutions. I also know that our solutions need to truly serve all young people. This means we cannot ignore issues like systemic racism, intergenerational poverty and discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community. Young people and their allies have been ready for decades to create a new system that dismantles these structural inequities, and I believe we have all the pieces in place to make it happen.

The numbers don’t lie – young people of color and young people who identify as LGBTQ+ disproportionately experience homelessness. Though black youth and young adults represent 4% of the population in Washington state, 24% of youth and young adults experiencing homelessness are black. And nationwide, about 40% of youth and young adults experiencing homelessness identify as LGBTQ+ according to True Colors United.

The truth is, our systems are biased, and they disadvantage and disenfranchise people of color, including youth and young adults. Let’s look at one example: When youth act out in school, the color of their skin can be an indicator of the outcomes they can expect. The same behaviors that get a white young person referred to behavioral health services can mean a disciplinary response, like suspension or even juvenile detention, for a young black person. Systems can put young people of color on a trajectory that ends up in homelessness.

Now, I want to be very clear – this ain’t new. Systemic racism came to our shores centuries ago with the slave ships and the genocide of indigenous peoples. But we do not have to let its ripples continue to rob young people today of the opportunity they deserve. Together, we can stop perpetuating these injustices. We can be innovative and try new solutions that look different from what we’ve done before, solutions that account for each young person’s unique needs.

Systems that were not created with young people of color in mind will not work to keep them safely housed. We need to remember that young people experiencing homelessness are the true experts in preventing and ending youth and young adult homelessness. Rather than trying to fit young people into boxes that aren’t quite right, we need to listen to young people and customize services to fit their needs. For example, if a young person who has experienced trauma says they need someone to take them to their appointments and to spend time with them after each session, that is what we should provide them.

I’ve heard all sorts of criticisms of this type of services – “But that’s just enabling young people,” the naysayers protest! We need to remember that even though young people with lived experience are resilient and strong, they still have the same developmental needs as their peers who live with their families. I’m a high school soccer coach, and I think about the support that my players receive from their families. They have parents who drive them to practice, bring them a snack and water bottle, ask them about their days, have dinner and even dessert waiting for them at home. And that’s what every young person deserves: The support of people who care about them.

Jim is a longtime soccer player and coach, and he decorates his office with a quilt his mother made with jerseys from all his teams

 

Youth and young adults experiencing homelessness are expected to navigate housing, counseling, medical and legal systems all on their own. But handing a young person who is asking for help a list of resources isn’t saying “Yes” to that young person. Instead, we should say “Yes, I will take you to your appointment.” “Yes, we can talk about how difficult this is for you.” “Yes, we can stop for a treat to celebrate your courage and determination.” That is the level of support we need to give every young person, whether they have experienced homelessness or not.

I’ve always said for nearly my entire career that systems and policies don’t change lives – relationships do. We need to create an environment where all young people, and especially young people of color and LGBTQ+ young people, feel safe and can develop healthy relationships. An environment where a young person of color knows that they can ask for help and receive help, not disciplinary action. That’s one of the major changes we need to prevent and end youth and young adult homelessness: Treating ALL young people as if they were our own. Because they are!

The Time Is Right: Washington Is Ready to End Youth and Young Adult Homelessness

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. In this four-part series, Jim shares why he believes Washington state is poised to end youth and young adult homelessness, and what solutions he believes will make the greatest impact. 

During my forty years on the front lines serving youth and young adults, it’s been my stubborn belief in solutions that’s kept me going. I’ve had some sobering moments, like attending the funerals of young people who did not survive the horrors of homelessness, and moments of great hope, like – pardon the repetition – passing the HOPE Act and founding The Mockingbird Society.

The Mockingbird Society Network Representatives Jonathan Hemphill, Avrey Tuttle and Farid Rasuli join Jim to celebrate the 2019 legislative session

 

After all these ups and downs, these past few years launching A Way Home Washington and the Anchor Community Initiative have convinced me that we’re at a unique and promising point in time to end youth and young adult homelessness in Washington. I’ve seen policymakers, service providers, philanthropy, government agencies, business leaders – in short, entire communities – rally around our collective North Star: making sure no young person is forced to sleep outside or in unsafe conditions. And I’ve seen young people’s voices at the center of the movement, advocating for their peers, co-creating initiatives and sharing in decision-making. We’re all on this journey together and ending youth and young adult homelessness is in our reach.

Now, some may say, Jim’s always been a hopeless optimist – he’s not even talking about all the challenges we’re facing! But I’ve learned a thing or two in these forty years, and I know the harsh realities that we’re up against. Cycles of intergenerational poverty keep families from the opportunities and resources they need to provide young people stable homes. Systemic racism pervades every aspect of our society and leads us to fail young people of color, who disproportionately experience homelessness. Discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community leads support networks to turn their backs on LGBTQ+ young people in need.

Yes, these structural issues need to be addressed to create a system where no young person is left without safe, stable housing and a path forward. But these challenges are not new and they’re not unique to Washington state. What is new and unique to Washington state is the widespread commitment to young people from all the key players who need to collaborate on a solution to youth and young adult homelessness. Right now, we have our governor, our legislature, philanthropy and communities around the state aligned around our North Star. Most importantly,  young people with lived experience of homelessness are at the table as decision makers and leaders. These courageous young people are advocating for themselves, their peers and the young children who don’t even know they may one day face homelessness.

I believe in solutions that create systemic, structural and sustainable change. I have every reason to believe that we are rising to the occasion and pursuing these solutions. Over my next few posts, I’ll explain what it means for a solution to create systemic, structural and sustainable change, and share some examples I see of solutions that meet these criteria. Until then, I hope I’ve shared at least a little bit of my optimism with you that together, we will end youth and young adult homelessness.