Opinion

Fund expands to cover youth and young adults

Kyle and Peter are like any other young boys with big imaginations and a box of crayons—except they were once homeless. Their mom, Holly, struggled for years to keep her family housed. Early trauma and abusive relationships left her with both financial and parenting challenges. She lost her home, and custody of her children. She knew she needed help.

Kyle, Peter and Holly were part of a startling trend. A decade ago, the face of homelessness took an unexpected turn: kids and families became the fastest-growing group. What worked for adults living on the streets simply didn’t meet the needs of parents, kids and young adults.

Kyle and Peter sat drawing pictures, intent on selecting colors as Holly shared her family’s journey back to stability: how she found housing and support tailored to her needs, and her boys returned home. Today Holly is pursuing a college degree while working side jobs to support her family. She’s taking good care of herself and her sons.

The Washington Families Fund—now the Washington Youth & Families Fund—was launched in 2004 as a groundbreaking collaboration between public and private partners to address the family homelessness crisis in unprecedented ways. The Fund’s 37 partners share the belief that by blending public and private efforts, and using data as our guide, we can transform the lives of families experiencing homelessness in Washington.

The Fund’s partners include public agencies supporting workforce, education and housing, major businesses, philanthropy, cities and counties, and more: all focused on the goal of making homelessness rare and brief for youth and families. Through coordinated efforts, we’ve seen real progress. The state of Washington invested $17 million in the Fund, and 25 private funders added $38.5 million. 81 organizations in 21 counties launched model programs and innovative strategies that change the ways families find and keep a home. According to the Department of Commerce, it’s working: since 2006, there’s been a 35 percent decline in family homelessness statewide.

Through the Fund’s focus on data and learning, we have a clearer picture of what works. We now know that with job assistance, short-term help with rent or housing, most families – like Holly and her sons - can quickly return to independence and stability. For those who need more, a five-year evaluation of families with complex needs is shedding light on how to tailor cost-effective housing and support.

There has been incredible progress, but there’s more work to do. Today we’re at another turning point: youth and young adults on their own are becoming the new face of homelessness. As with families a decade ago, we’re learning we need more services across the state to help youth and young adults reach their potential. New solutions must be designed for their unique needs and strengths. They deserve our focused attention, most creative ideas and support. That’s why the fund is now including youth and young adults in its charge.

We all – public, private, non-profit and citizens – have a role to play. It will take a shared, sustained commitment to make homelessness rare and brief. It will take resources, collaboration, and a relentless focus on evaluation and learning. It will take a chorus of voices demanding that we care for our state’s vulnerable youth and families.

It’s tempting to say that the problem is too big. But a decade of progress tells us that our goal is achievable.

Washington is nationally recognized as a leader in innovative solutions to homelessness. At the heart of innovation is our shared commitment to kids like Kyle and Peter, who just want a safe place to call home and a fridge where Mom can proudly display their art.

Tough budget decisions lie ahead in our Legislature, board rooms and living rooms. The time is right to sharpen our resolve and support efforts that have proven their ability to support young people and families.

Trudi Inslee is First Lady of the state of Washington. David Bley is director of Pacific Northwest Initiatives at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. They are co-chairs of the Washington Youth & Families Fund.

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