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!