A Way Home Washington Listening Tour—What We Heard

By Sheila Babb Anderson

A Way Home Washington recently embarked on a listening tour around Washington state to hear from local leaders about the state of youth and young adult homelessness in their communities. Each conversation was led by our honorary co-chair, First Lady Trudi Inslee, and Kim Justice, Executive Director of the Office of Homeless Youth. The conversations included service providers, school officials, housing providers and local leaders. In each stop we asked participants the following questions:

  • What does youth homelessness look like in your community?
  • What is working well to prevent and end youth homelessness?
  • What else do you need to be successful?

In separate conversations, youth with experiences of homelessness were given the opportunity to share their stories and feedback. A Way Home Washington’s youth co-chair moderated the conversation with young people in Everett, and highlighted how important youth voice is in this work.

Four communities participated in this initial series of listening sessions: Yakima, Tacoma, Vancouver, and Everett. The sessions were hosted by key service providers in each community, who issued the invitations to other individuals and entities working with youth and young adults.

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While it is clear that each community has its own unique bright spots and challenges, there were a few common things heard in each city:

  • The need for safe spaces for youth under the age of 18. Leaders in each community talked about the challenges assisting unaccompanied youth under 18. Increased shelter options, better relationships with child welfare, and host homes are some of the solutions being considered. Housing options are particularly challenging in rural areas, where provider capacity continues to be a major issue.
  • Lack of affordable housing. Housing shortages in each community are not only driving up the numbers of overall homelessness, but youth homelessness, as well. Youth and young adults are particularly hindered in their search for housing due to lack of credit and rental history, inconsistent employment, or criminal records as a result of their homelessness.
  • Community collaboration is key. Each community highlighted successful partnerships between schools, housing, and workforce partners. However, more is needed to break down silos and foster better collaboration between systems interacting with youth.
  • More can be done to build awareness. Youth homelessness is often hidden and misunderstood. Honest and open conversations are needed to address this problem head-on.

Many other issues were addressed in these discussions, with varying levels of urgency, including:

  • Struggles with mental health and chemical dependency
  • Challenges faced by young parents
  • Relationships with law enforcement and criminalization of homelessness
  • Human trafficking

Four Communities Working on Solutions

Yakima – August 16, 2016
In Yakima, Rod’s House and Yakima Neighborhood Health Services convened the conversation at The Space, a LGBTQ drop in center that opened in June. The Space acts as a hub for services—a key ingredient for success. In addition to The Space, Yakima youth can also use Rod’s House as a central location for referrals to housing, healthcare, job training, and other basic needs.

Yakima Neighborhood Health Services also shared their success with the BESTY House, a new partnership between YNHS, Rod’s House, the South Central Workforce Council and Educational Service District 105. These diverse partners are coming together to provide a supportive living environment for young women transitioning from extended foster care to independent living. This group living situation will provide housing, job coaching and education plans to set these youth on the path to successful adulthood.

Tacoma – August 24, 2016
The Tacoma listening session took place at the Oasis Youth Center, in partnership with Community Youth Services. For over 30 years, the Oasis Youth Center has provided safe spaces for LGBTQ youth in Pierce County. With an estimated 40% of youth and young adults experiencing homelessness identifying as LGBTQ, resources like Oasis will play a critical role in the identification and response to this community.

Community Youth Services, a long time service provider in the South Sound region, is working in partnership with the Tacoma Housing authority to site a new young adult specific housing shelter in Pierce County through a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. This shelter will house 33 young people, ages 18-24, and provide them with services appropriate to that age group.

Vancouver – September 21, 2016
In Vancouver, Janus Youth Services hosted the community conversation with the City of Vancouver. Janus Youth Services provides youth focused housing and a drop in center in Vancouver, with plans to expand their work to Cowlitz County in the near future.

The Vancouver community also highlighted their school based work around the identification and assistance to homeless families and unaccompanied youth in the Vancouver School District. Their success is centered on family resource coordinators located in schools and will be expanded through a recent grant from the State of Washington under the Homeless Student Stability Act, which passed earlier this year.

Everett – September 22, 2016
The last stop on the tour was hosted by Cocoon House in Everett. As a major youth provider in Snohomish County, Cocoon House has formed strong relationships with the schools and workforce community to get young people on a path out of homelessness through education and employment. According to Workforce Snohomish, 80% of the youth visiting their drop-in center identify as homeless.

This community highlighted the importance of building trust between partners in this work. Service providers and school employees need to work together for quick referrals and interventions. This isn’t the case in every community, but a key element to success.

Each community visited on the listening tour has found ways to respond to the unique strengths and challenges they face. Each community can share lessons around collaboration on housing, schools, employment and other services key to preventing and ending youth homelessness.

What we know—and don’t know—about youth homelessness in Washington state

If you are like many of us here at A Way Home Washington, you spent July and August soaking up as much of the Rio Olympics as possible. As you were watching, you might have asked yourself, What makes Simone Biles so dominant in gymnastics? Turns out, one reason is that Simone has such a powerful run, she can begin her tumbling passes earlier, giving her more room to flip and twist.

Access to data helps us answer so many questions—not just about our favorite athletes, but also about some of the most urgent issues our society faces. And quality data does more than raise awareness or find answers. It helps point to ways we can better spend our money, focus our time, or allocate resources to save and improve lives.

Think about how you make decisions about the products you buy. You compare reviews, examine the cost and effectiveness of various products, and ask friends about their experiences. With all that data and information combined, you make a well-informed decision for you and your family.

The problem we face here in Washington state is that, for years, we’ve lacked detailed, accurate information about the state of youth homelessness. As a result, thousands of youth are forgotten and left behind. That’s why A Way Home Washington commissioned a landscape analysis of youth homelessness in the state.

The scan focused on five communities: Spokane County, the south sound, Walla Walla County, Yakima County, and a cluster of rural regions across the state. It documented each area’s demographic statistics, available programs for youth, capacity to support and address youth homelessness, and identifiable community needs to expand these programs and services.

Much of the findings are community specific, but there were some common statewide themes:

Youth experiencing homelessness stay local: 86 percent of youth experiencing homelessness access services in the same zip code of their last permanent address.

We must improve social services: 28 percent of youth exiting the foster care system are homeless within 12 months, and that number is 26 percent for youth exiting the juvenile justice system.

Once a young person is housed, they stay that way: Only 2 percent of youth accessing homeless services returned to homelessness from transitional or permanent housing.

It’s clear there’s a lot of work ahead of us to solve youth homelessness, but some of the findings offer encouraging suggestions for how we can approach this work with partners. Several “quick wins”— actions or policy changes that would yield near-immediate, positive results—were identified:

Ensure consistency at school: Make sure students experiencing homelessness keep their Individual Education Plans—developed for each public school child eligible for special education—if they change schools.
Enhance statewide data to inform decision-making: Develop a statewide dashboard to monitor progress against key metrics in youth homelessness, and disaggregate the data by race to ensure that progress is equitable.

Strengthen communication among service providers: Improve communications around licensing for shelters, host homes, and foster care programs, and create relationships between juvenile detention centers and youth housing providers to prevent discharging youth from detention to the streets.

This scan—one of the most complete aggregations of local data to date—makes it clear that while many approaches to ending youth homelessness can and should be tailored to communities. They shouldn’t exist in silos.

There are so many things we still want to learn, though, and that’s why A Way Home Washington is currently on a Listening & Learning Tour across the state. It started August 16, with First Lady Trudi Inslee and Kim Justice, Executive Director of the Washington Office of Homeless Youth, sitting down with youth and community leaders in Yakima. They’ve also stopped in Tacoma, Vancouver, and Everett to learn about common barriers and solutions for ending youth homelessness, and understand what unique challenges exist.

At the conclusion of this tour, we’ll report out what we’ve heard from communities. Combined with the qualitative findings in this scan, we will be able to explore targeted, tailored, and transformational solutions to help end youth homelessness in this state.

If we’re successful, maybe we’ll inspire the next Simone Biles. At the very least, we’ll help the next generation of young people in this state to reach their full potential.

Partners in Pierce County

By Trudi Inslee

As a lifelong Washingtonian, I’ve seen time and time again that people in this state come together to solve problems and lend a hand when someone is in need.

I am witnessing this commitment first-hand on a Listening & Learning Tour for A Way Home Washington. We are traveling to communities across the state to learn more about youth homelessness and how we can help communities implement strategies to prevent and end it.

I recently visited partners and community leaders in Pierce County, along with Kim Justice, executive director of our state’s Office of Homeless Youth. We gathered at Oasis Youth Center, a drop-in and support center dedicated to the needs of LGBTQ youth.

We had the opportunity to hear from youth who have experienced homelessness. Their stories are heartbreaking—some of these young people have lacked secure housing for years, been ostracized by family or caregivers beca
use of their sexual or gender identity, or even been forced into prostitution.

But their journeys are also filled with strength, bravery, and in the best cases, a helping hand. Twenty-three
year old Tomica White was homeless for most of her adolescence. She’s relied on recently opened shelter PierceListeningTourSQ3services from Community Youth Services since December 2015. Community Youth Services also works with shelter residents to help them transition to permanent housing. They already helped 33 people find housing, and I was thrilled to learn that Tomica will soon receive the keys to her own apartment.

We know that solutions need to be tailored to represent the unique challenges young people like Tomica face in their hometown. For example, we heard in Pierce County that youth in rural areas—who lack reliable transportation—struggle to access services available in Tacoma. One young man, who volunteers his time to help his peers, sharedthat he once rode his bike from Tacoma to Eatonville to check on a friend who was in an unsafe environment and was unable to make the trip to Tacoma.

We also heard that there is a need for:

  • More services to address youth homelessness—in particular more shelter and day centers that offer hygiene services such as showers;
  • More diversity in host homes so youth can be matched with caregivers who better understand their daily reality; and
  • More integration across sectors so everyone that interacts with youth—at school, day centers, shelters, and other service providers—knows what kind of help is available for young people in need.

We still have work to do. But the progress in Pierce County, and the passion I heard from committed partners and community leaders, leaves me optimistic.

We have two more stops in the Listening & Learning Tour: in Snohomish and Clark Counties. But my hope and Kim’s hope is that our statewide network of partners is strengthened through A Way Home Washington so every partner feels like they have an opportunity to voice their ideas and concerns.

Mrs. Inslee serves as honorary co-chair of A Way Home Washington and is the First Lady of the State of Washington.

In Yakima, collaboration fuels solutions to help end youth homelessness

By Trudi Inslee

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the wonderful city of Yakima to learn more about what youth homelessness looked like in the region, and how they were tackling it. Yakima was the first stop on the A Way Home Washington Listening & Learning Tour—a trek across the state to learn more about youth homelessness in the cities and communities who experience it every day.

We know each community is diverse in its strengths and needs—and, therefore, if we want to truly end youth homelessness, we need local solutions tailored to these unique community circumstances.

Kim Justice, executive director of our state’s Office of Homeless Youth, also joined me in Yakima. Kim is doing incredible work with partners all across the state to launch a strategic plan later this year, which will provide key recommendations to prevent and end youth homelessness in Washington state.

As someone who chose to raise my kids in the Yakima Valley, I know how hard working, smart, and caring the people in the region are. That came through in so many ways during this event.A Way Home WA listening tour in Yakima

We first gathered at The Space, a new place for LGBTQ youth to meet and access services hosted by Yakima Neighborhood Health. Up to 40 percent of youth who are homeless self-identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning. As Kim said in an interview with KIMA TV, it is critically important for these young people to have a place to go, especially those who may not find that support in their own home.

Here’s what both Kim and I learned quickly in our discussion with service providers, school leaders, and local policymakers: Yakima has an incredibly collaborative environment of providers. Whether it’s working with churches, local businesses, or the school district, providers have a strong network in place to ensure young people get linked with health, education, and employment support.

However, there is one thing the community still lacks: a range of housing solutions for youth and young adults in the region. Leaving this discussion, Kim and I pledged to take action on steps that A Way Home Washington and the Office of Homeless Youth can take to support Yakima and make this a reality.

We also visited Rod’s House, a drop-in center where youth can receive job preparation, mentorship, and career training support to help them get back on their feet. There, I had the opportunity to meet four brave young people whose stories sounded like they could have come from any one of us. Health issues, unstable jobs, or coming from families already struggling to survive are just a few reasons these young people fell into homelessness.

Now, I’ve been fortunate enough to have a safety net to fall back on when I came across hard times. Through different circumstances, these young people didn’t have that when they needed it most. We owe it to them and all the young people across the state to ensure one setback or speed bump doesn’t push them into homelessness.

I was honored to meet so many hardworking individuals dedicated to improving the lives of young people in Yakima. I couldn’t have thought of a better kickoff to our Listening & Learning Tour.

Next up, we will visit communities in Pierce, Snohomish, and Clark counties. I look forward to hearing what they will share—and how we can support them.

Mrs. Inslee serves as honorary co-chair of A Way Home Washington and is the First Lady of the State of Washington.