Gathering Youth Feedback in Pierce County

For the past 12 months, Anchor Communities have been working hard to achieve quality, real-time data. To reach this milestone, communities must create ways for youth and young adults to provide feedback on their experience accessing systems. In Pierce County, the Core Team created a special committee to work on this task, consisting of Angel, Brianna, and Zaira, three young people with lived experience, and iLeana, The Mockingbird Society’s Youth Engagement Coordinator. Together, they created a new process from start to finish to gather feedback.

“Being involved from the beginning of the project is essential to calling our process co-design,” Angel said. “Everyone’s perspective matters.”

The team worked on a survey to provide young people a safe space to provide their feedback. To begin, they drafted survey questions and worked with young people at the REACH Center GED program to review their questionnaire. This gave the team guidance on how to ask the questions in a way that young people would feel comfortable providing honest feedback. Then, the team developed multiple methods to distribute the survey:

  • The team started with a computer survey. However, some young people had difficulty focusing or reading from the computer, so other methods were developed.
  • Young people were hired to ask the survey questions in person. This helped young people in crisis feel supported throughout the process.
  • Staff who interact with young people for the Coordinated Entry process were trained on the survey so they could also collect information when possible.
Zaira, Devon, iLeana, Angel, and Brianna at A Way Home Washington’s advocacy day

This entire process was led by Angel, Brianna, and Zaira. They were responsible for every detail of the project, from typing up the questionnaire to developing the survey distribution methods. iLeana supported them as needed to keep the project moving, providing coaching on matters like meeting deadlines. This approach helped Angel, Brianna, and Zaira nurture their leadership skills and take full ownership over the project’s outcome.

“It was very valuable for me to have accountability in my projects, like in creating this survey, because it lets me own my own mistakes and successes,” Zaira said.

After gathering responses, the team’s key insights from the survey were:

  • Youth and young adults need easier access to programs that teach independent living skills
  • Young people who are couch-surfing do not always qualify for resources even though they need support to access basic necessities

Our Anchor Communities value co-development of projects with youth and young adults, and this project demonstrates why this is such an important value. Youth and young adults experiencing homelessness navigate these systems every day, and we need their expertise to truly understand what’s working and what’s not. Our work needs to intentionally engage young people on a regular basis, so we rely on current and relevant insights.

“Youth need a seat at the table, and they need to be heard at the table,” Brianna said. “We need to be involved from the beginning of the process, we need to be involved in the design of solutions, and these opportunities need to be compensated and accessible for young people.”

Our partnerships with young people with lived experience are one of the reasons we believe the Anchor Community Initiative is the right approach to ending youth and young adult homelessness. With young people’s wisdom, we know we can arrive at the right solutions.

Helping Young People Receive the Stimulus Payment

In a matter of weeks, the COVID-19 outbreak has created the conditions that could lead to a huge influx in our state’s youth homelessness system. A spike in unemployment, an economic downturn, instability in every sense. All this puts young people who’ve worked very hard to secure stable housing at risk of returning to homelessness.

At the same time, this crisis has led society to see that we need to do more to support the most vulnerable people in our communities. The past few weeks have brought on eviction moratoriums, decarceration efforts, a newfound dedication to housing everyone. In this moment of creativity and inventiveness, we need to capitalize on every opportunity to effect the system-level and policy changes that will help us end youth and young adult homelessness.

In the social sector, our organizations’ platforms and voices are one of the tools we have at our disposal to push for change. We’re also responsible for listening to the people we serve, and focus our energies on efforts that will make a meaningful difference in their lives. For us at A Way Home Washington, one of those efforts has been providing young people with information on how to get their federal stimulus payments.

In my recent conversations with young people experiencing housing instability, I’ve heard them say that access to cash would go a long way to help them stay housed right now, and the stimulus payment would give them just that. Many young people who have experienced homelessness have experienced the trauma of dealing with complex systems that weren’t designed for them, and have rightfully lost trust. The young people I talked to had little hope that they’d actually receive the payment. Filling out forms, updating their banking information, making sure the payment came to the right place – all of it felt too overwhelming.

Our stimulus payment social media toolkit

I’ve come across a lot of amazing, detailed guides on the stimulus payment for service providers, like this comprehensive guide from YMCA. I felt a different resource was needed, too – one that could outline the information young people needed in the most straightforward way possible. I also wanted to create something that could be shared directly with young people through the channels they’re already plugged into, like social media. Our in-house communication capabilities and our access to local organizations in the Anchor Communities positioned us to create a stimulus payment social media toolkit and add to the resources that already existed.

Many young people experiencing homelessness have bounced around from place to place, have never had to file taxes, and are now disconnected from schools or service providers that may have helped them complete these types of processes before. All of this leaves them disempowered in the face of this crisis and uniquely positioned to not receive their stimulus payment. The toolkit includes the contact information for local resources in our Anchor Communities, helping connect young people with other support they may need. Many of these resources, like the Youth Engagement Team in Walla Walla and the ACT outreach team in Pierce County, exist in part because of Anchor Community Initiative funding, and now more than ever it’s important for young people to know that these resources are there for them, right in their own community.

If even one young person receives their stimulus payment because they saw the information we provided, it was worth investing time and resources into creating the toolkit. We are living through possibly the biggest upheaval we’ll experience in our lifetime. This moment has taught me the importance of pivoting quickly, intentionally creating space to hear from the people most affected, and decisively stepping into roles where we can be uniquely supportive. There is such a strong connection between our mission to end youth and young adult homelessness and the work of responding to this pandemic, and it is our responsibility as non-profits, as advocates, and as community members to create a society that is always ready to respond to the needs of those furthest from justice.

Help us share the stimulus payment social media posts far and wide! The toolkit includes text for Facebook posts and a set of images, in English and in Spanish.

What’s Next for the Anchor Community Initiative?

Our Anchor Communities have been making amazing progress to end youth and young adult homelessness, with one community reaching quality real-time data, and three out of four communities have completed the By-Name List Scorecard. It feels like the perfect time to highlight what’s next for A Way Home Washington and the Anchor Community Initiative.

As a refresher, the Anchor Community Initiative is based on the Built for Zero model, which has four phases. The first phase requires communities to achieve quality, real-time data. This has already been achieved by Pierce County, while Walla Walla and Yakima County are only a couple months away. The second phase is reducing. At this point, communities begin to implement improvement projects and use quality real-time data to evaluate the success of these projects.

So, what does reducing mean for to the Anchor Community Initiative? At a high-level, it means lowering the number of young people experiencing homelessness across the entire system. To start this process, our Data and Evaluation Director, Liz, has created different focus areas, or reducing process measures. Communities set goals around any of the following focus areas to start seeing reductions in their homeless numbers:

1. Lowering the number of unsheltered young people
2. Increasing the number of housing placements
3. Lowering returns from housing into homelessness
4. Lowering the average length of time young people experience homelessness

Pierce County is the first community to set a goal around one of these measures: They will focus on increasing housing placements by 30% by August 2020. As communities begin reporting race/ethnicity data and sexual orientation, gender expression and identity (SOGIE) data, they will be able to further refine their goals by adding an equity component. For example, if a community’s data shows that Black young people are housed at a lower rate than young people of other ethnicities, the community can set a goal around increasing housing placements for this population.

Communities will have access to a new tool to boost their reduction efforts: The Centralized Diversion Fund. Starting in July 2020, these flexible funds will be accessible to young people through local service providers to support them with costs like short-term rental assistance, move-in costs, and more. This will help young people stay housed and reduce the number of young people coming into the homeless system.

Youth and young adult engagement is a staple of the Anchor Community Initiative. Communities have laid the groundwork, and now they will continue to build towards the Gold Standard for youth and young adult engagement. Young people will be treated as experts and leaders in the work. This means that young people will be part of hiring, strategy development, and project implementation during this phase of the work, including choosing at least two reduction improvement projects.

Throughout all this work, we will capture best practices and successes in each community to share with other Anchor Communities and aid them in their processes. After reducing, the third phase of the work is ending youth and young adult homelessness. This means communities will create a Yes to Yes system where they have the capacity to support every young person who needs help and achieve equitable outcomes for young people of color and LGBTQ+ young people. We’re working hard to help communities end youth and young adult homelessness by the end of 2022 and sustain their achievement for generations to come!

 

 

A Silver Lining

Youth, young adults, and alumni with lived experience have the wisdom and expertise we need to develop effective solutions to youth and young adult homelessness. Justice is a lived experience expert working with our Anchor Community Team in Spokane, and this is their story of why they advocate for young people.

When I was 14, I lived with my parents who adopted me from Donetsk, Ukraine and brought me to the United States of America. Once I came to the US, I faced abuse for years and eventually grew tired of it. One night I remember feeling like my fight and drive were running out because I had been struggling for so long. I desperately tried to get help for my siblings and me. I remember feeling continuously disappointed wherever I turned.

I entered the Child Welfare System under the Washington State Department of Children, Youth and Families when I was a minor. Rosey Thurman, an attorney with TeamChild Spokane took my case and helped me file a Dependency Petition as the sole petitioner. Mrs. Thurman supported me and listened to me. Through this experience, I found my passion for law.

I am one of the many young adults that fell through the cracks of the system. So, in my despair, I turned to writing. It became a passion of mine. Meanwhile, I dreamed that one day I would be somebody that does something to make the system less broken. That’s why I do this advocacy work. I do it so that other youth won’t have to experience the same pain, despair and disappointment that I did.

Justice

There is a silver lining in every situation. You just need to be willing to fight on patiently and look for it. I experienced homelessness once as a minor and three times now as a young adult. And as an individual facing chronic, complex medical issues, I am also experiencing the immense struggle of navigating a healthcare system that is not designed for my mental or physical well-being. However, I am thankful for living through the pain and despair because those experiences have taught me how to better help others who have similar experiences – that is my silver lining.

Since becoming an advocate, I have been passionate about engaging with state departments where I am meant to access services. Beyond my personal needs, my biggest driver for advocating has been to improve the quality of services for youth and families that depend on the system. My long-term goal is to become an attorney, but I recognize that I am already a content expert through my lived experience in the child welfare system and homelessness. I work as a consultant today because I cannot wait until I earn my J.D. through law school to stand up for youth and young adults – like TeamChild did for me.

Here is a poem that I wrote:

Editor’s Note: This poem contains a reference to self-harm.

Don’t Look Back

By: Justice Sun

As life hammers,
You down to the ground,
It feeling as though,
You are sitting in space,
Watching the world pass you by,
Day by day.
You only growing older,
By the second.
Your head spinning,
From one direction to the other.
You feeling all hope,
For you is gone.
Sitting playing with a knife,
Contemplating,
That ugly thought,
To end the life,
That lays before you,
You stand on your two broken feet,
And throw that knife,
Out of bodily reach,
And in return,
Your dreams,
Are in your reach,
You are who you may not want to be,
But,
Don’t look back,
For the old you may be crawling,
Closer to the person,
Who is rising to the sky,
Becoming like a tower,
Running to the person,
With an ugly past,
But a star bright future,
And that is you.

Why I Advocate

Youth, young adults, and alumni with lived experience have the wisdom and expertise we need to develop effective solutions to youth and young adult homelessness. Roel is a lived experience consultant, and this is his story of why he advocates for young people.

Here’s the thing about working with A Way Home Washington—To me, it doesn’t seem like work at all. It feels like it’s the correct and natural thing for me to do. I’m sure this stems from my background.

For many years I experienced instability that overshadowed many parts of my life, as well as spells of homelessness. I spent many days wondering where I was going that night. I also spent many nights wondering if the safety of day would come. It wasn’t a good feeling. Even still, many youth experiencing homelessness have it way worse than I did. I’ve been so lucky to have good outcomes in situations that look and should be devastating.

Roel

That’s why my work with A Way Home Washington is important. No youth or young adult should have to wonder where they’re going to sleep, shower, and eat so they can recuperate. A lot of people do not know how it feels to really experience homelessness and how it takes a toll on everything about you that is human. It makes obtaining a job difficult. Without a job, housing becomes almost impossible to obtain. If you receive any money it usually goes to food and the essentials necessary to survive. The saddest part of everything is that you spend so much time trying to survive that it becomes impossible to see growth within yourself because you aren’t living your life.

When you must worry about the basics, you can’t begin to think about pursuing anything other than that. School is a distant thought, important things like healthcare get put on the backburner.  After a while, you get stuck in this cycle. Going from shelter to shelter or couch to couch begins to feel normal. You ignore the aches and pains and learn to live by consuming the emergency resources around you. Imagine your heart is always beating fast from adrenaline, hunger getting pushed to the back of your mind, and you are rarely ever sure if you’ll have a safe place to sleep tonight. This is the norm for youth and young adults experiencing homelessness.

I believe the work I do with A Way Home Washington helps the system take steps in the right direction. I got lucky with the people in my life. I was lucky to have a good team supporting me. Throughout it all people like Jim Theofelis never gave up on me. They continued to present me with opportunities to pursue my passion of helping to solve the problem of youth and young adult homelessness.

These events that occurred in my life as a result of homelessness are but just a microcosm of what A Way Home Washington and the Anchor Community Initiative have set out to solve. They really “walk the walk” and it reminds me of my early years advocating with The Mockingbird Society.

At different points in my life, both The Mockingbird Society and A Way Home Washington had been a guiding light when I was in dire need of something to hold onto. The work provided a sense of hope. And sometimes that’s all the spark it takes to get the engine going again. It was that for me and I hope it can be for other youth and young adults experiencing homelessness in Washington state. I know my work with A Way Home Washington is helping to reduce and end youth and young adult homelessness, and that is why it’s important to me.

Giving Back to My Community

Youth, young adults, and alumni with lived experience have the wisdom and expertise we need to develop effective solutions to youth and young adult homelessness. Sunshine is a lived experience expert working with our Anchor Community Team in Yakima, and this is her story of why she advocates for young people.

My past has influenced my future so much. It has also had a significant impact on how I define family. When I was growing up, I didn’t have the guidance and structure I needed to make positive choices. I grew up in the foster care system and was moved around a lot. I was adopted at the age of 6 ½, and by that time, I had lost a lot of trust in people.

I had lost the will to live and move forward at an early age. I felt as if I was worthless and “not good enough.” I began to hate everyone around me. These feelings caused me to make choices that had a significant impact on my life early on and made navigating life harder. Eventually I was sent to a juvenile detention and a residential treatment center for using drugs and alcohol.

It was at that point in my life that I began to feel listened to. When I was with my biological family and adopted family, I felt like they didn’t respect my feelings about things that were important to me. Juvenile was the first time that I felt like I had adults who listened to me. I started making better choices and I started to regain trust in people again. While in the residential treatment center program, I was able to get 3 college credits and work on life skills training. When I graduated from the program, I was ready to show the world what I learned and what I can do!

I moved to Yakima from Arizona, and this is where I was able to show who I really was. I joined leadership groups in high school and showed other students that just because your life isn’t perfect doesn’t mean you can’t make it perfect! I started to have more positive friendships and prove to myself that I could do more than what I was currently doing.

Sunshine

After high school, I accepted a job that I absolutely adore at Rod’s House. With this job, I am able to help the youth that comes through Rod’s House and show them that they are important and special. I am changing lives just as my life was changed and that is my passion. The best part about my job is seeing youth’s accomplishments on a day-to-day basis. I love hearing when youth achieve goals they never thought they would achieve, such as getting back into schools, reconnecting with family, and connecting with other support systems. I love helping our youth feel important and loved.

My day isn’t complete without this work because I love what I do. Whenever I come to work, I am ready to learn new techniques and skills in order to help make a difference. I want to give back to the people who have helped me. I don’t want what happened to me to happen to any other youth and that is why I am so passionate about my work. Showing our youth that we care means the world to them and it means the world to me to watch them grow and achieve so much in their own lives.  

I want to give everyone a special thanks for reading my story. I am passionate about what I do and there isn’t any other job in his world I would rather have. I appreciate being able to listen to our youth and help them in any way I can. I love that I can make a difference. All in all I would say that I have gone through a big change, and other people see me differently now.

Meet Our Community Engagement Coordinator!

For the past nine years, I’ve been working to end youth and young adult homelessness in different capacities. I’ve worked in advocacy, direct services and creating partnerships. From all these experiences, I’ve learned that to transform systems, we need to listen and bring people together.

Deonate with The Mockingbird Society Engagement Coordinators and Chapter Leaders

I started my work in this field at The Mockingbird Society, where I started to see how system-level change requires multiple parties to push for reform. It became apparent that everyone who interacts with the system is part of the solution – from young people to legislators to funders to social services staff. In my six-and-a-half years at Mockingbird, I had the opportunity to interact with people in all these roles and help rally them around our mission.

When I moved into a direct service role at the Accelerator YMCA, I saw firsthand how young people’s insights and expertise can help shape effective programs. My job was to connect young adults ages 18-24 with flexible diversion funds that could support their housing needs and keep them from experiencing homelessness. We held focus groups with young people to gather their feedback on the program, leading to adjustments to make the program more effective at meeting their needs.

Right before joining the A Way Home Washington team, I worked at YouthCare, where I helped connect service providers throughout King County with the juvenile court system. Working closely with the system, I gained perspective into how partnerships between systems and service providers can help ensure better outcomes for young people.

During these nine years, I’ve heard organizations speak about changing the system countless times. And I agree – we do need change! But my mental picture of the system has changed over the years. It’s transformed from a monolithic, singular entity in my mind to a composite of the multiple individuals that comprise the system. And this shift has made the prospect of changing the system less intimidating – it’s not about moving one giant colossus, but rather about unifying the individuals that make up the system to work together.

Changing the system means unifying legislators around policy that will result in better outcomes for young people. Listening to young people and making changes so they can navigate services more easily. Making investments so that service providers can more easily do their work and support young people. And it means constantly asking ourselves who is missing from the table.

As Community Engagement Coordinator, my work will center on building a table that prioritizes those most impacted by youth and young adult homelessness. That means communities of color. The LGBTQ+ community. Young people with lived experience and alumni. Everyone at A Way Home Washington is accountable for ensuring that these voices always guide our work, and through this position we have the added capacity to work on these relationships intentionally and continuously.

To ensure that our work leads to everlasting and equitable change, we’re going to need the perspective of all parties involved in systems that serve young people. We’ll need to think critically about who needs to be included in these conversations and processes. This is one of the reasons I’m excited to be part of the A Way Home Washington team. If we’re going to do this right, then everyone involved needs to have a voice in this process.

What Trauma-Informed Practice 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 how trauma informs our work at A Way Home Washington.

“When you get housed, staff is constantly hounding you to get a job and make the rent. When I was on the streets I couldn’t break down and fall apart, I had to stay strong every second. Now I’m in housing and feel safe for the first time in years, and I just need to lock myself in my room and feel my feelings. But no, they kick you out for that.”

This is how one young person described their experience in housing programs to me when I worked at The Mockingbird Society. I got to work closely with young people who exited homelessness into housing programs, and I heard stories of young people who were continually kicked out of shelter and housing. One lost their housing for three days after they returned smelling like weed. Another asked for a night away to attend their dad’s wedding, had their request denied and then got kicked out for going anyway. Yet another was asked to leave for being behind on their “productive hours.”

Trauma is ubiquitous and ongoing for young people experiencing homelessness. Young people of color and LGBTQ+ young folks must also survive racism, homophobia and transphobia while experiencing trauma. Feeling unsafe for long periods of time causes people to stay in a state of hypervigilance, or what young people call ‘survival mode’. They need to constantly watch their backs and focus on surviving the next night, so situations that may not feel threatening to a person who has not experienced trauma may lead to bigger reactions than housing program staff expect.

These are extremely difficult experiences, and young people are not healed the second they get housed. They can’t just switch off from survival mode immediately. Yet our programs and services are constructed as if they could. We want young people working, paying rent and being “productive” as soon as possible once they’re housed. We aren’t prepared to respond to young people’s reactions when they’re still living in survival mode. We expect them to live inside, often in group settings, with no peer conflict and with totally new coping mechanisms.

A system designed to serve young people wouldn’t result in so much cycling through programs. The fact that young people are able to navigate these systems that weren’t designed with their needs in mind is a testament to their resilience. In many cases, young people are relying on their own strength to survive and thrive despite of the system, not because of it.   

The Adolescent Health Working Group provider toolkit on trauma is a helpful resource

We need to transform the system and stop treating young people like their trauma will abruptly end the second they’re housed. On the individual level, we need to work with young people in ways that take their traumatic experiences into account, and we need to recognize their trauma responses for what they are. At a societal level, we need to dismantle toxic systems, policies and practices that create environments primed for trauma.

At A Way Home Washington, we are committed to transforming our statewide system in partnership with young people themselves. We need a system that sees each young person as whole, capable, smart and deserving. We want to address the root causes of homelessness and trauma to create a Yes to Yes system with the capacity to support each young person in the way each young person needs to be supported.

Recently, I attended a Learning Session hosted by Community Solutions. During one of the workshops, the facilitator asked participants to list the barriers to housing people may experience. The answers were familiar: No job. Refuses housing. Mental illness. And then, the facilitator asked us to change the way we think about these barriers. Instead of seeing these characteristics as barriers that keep people from being housed, we should think about the barriers our systems put up to keep people with these characteristics from being housed.

The Anchor Community Initiative is working to actively identify the barriers keeping their local systems from being responsive to young people. Communities then address these barriers through coaching and support from experts. If a barrier is too big for a single community to solve, we work in partnership with the Office of Homeless Youth to advocate for policy and funding changes at the state level. Through this approach, we know that we’ll be able to build trauma-informed Yes to Yes systems.

Centering Youth Voice

Youth partnership is critical to ending youth and young adult homelessness, and it is one of our core values at A Way Home Washington. Sierra Phillips is one of our youth partnership consultants, and she shares how she has seen this work make an impact on youth and young adult engagement.

Adultism training. Being unafraid to fail. A high level of community participation. Funding for diversion programs. Accountability. These are a few of the things our Anchor Communities, Pierce, Walla Walla, Yakima, and Spokane, were proud of during the recent annual convening. And I am proud of working with an organization that consistently incorporates these values into the work we do.

Sierra presenting at the convening

I’ve been working as a consultant with A Way Home Washington for the past 8 months, and I’ve been helping the Anchor Community Initiative team make sure that youth and young adults are centered in activities like the annual convening. In preparation for the event, I was able to sit down with the team that works on the initiative every day, and with members of the local teams like Carla, an amazing young person from Walla Walla. Through this preparation, I gained the contextual knowledge I needed to make sure my recommendations helped the team come closer to their goal of centering young people in all activities.

The annual convening was a lot of fun. On the day of the event, I got the chance to connect with and meet some rad people, including the young people who are part of each community’s team. I learned what each community was doing and how their goals would impact their future work. And because we were intentional about creating a space where young people’s voices are heard, I believe this event helped each community better understand why youth and young adult engagement is so important in this work.  

I am encouraged to see that youth and young adult engagement is central to A Way Home Washington’s work, and that I continue to be consulted for my expertise on this topic. Over the past months, I’ve been called in to assist with interview panels for staff hiring at A Way Home Washington and work planning sessions for the Anchor Community Initiative.

I hope my future includes more of this work. It is because of A Way Home Washington and other similar agencies that I believe I am more than my story. I don’t have to sit on a stage and be paraded around as “the homeless person.” I am strong, I am capable, and I can do whatever I set my mind too. My future hopes and dreams today are much bigger than they previously were. I feel empowered with the knowledge that I do have a voice that matters in this work and I want other young people to feel that way as well.

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.