Office of Homeless Youth can fill gap

In a state where more than 30,000 children and youths find themselves homeless, authorities hoping to keep them connected to school are always fighting an uphill battle.

Advocates say it makes sense to create a new state Office of Homeless Youth Programs. The proposed Homeless Youth Act would do just that, consolidating several state efforts in one place.

It sets a goal that the state, which cares for many youth through such programs as foster care, not discharge young people into homelessness. Advocates say it would make services and support more available in communities across the state.

The Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction said in a report last year that the number of homeless students is growing – from 20,780 during the 2008-09 school year to 32,494 last year. Those figures include kids in pre-kindergarten as well as K-12 grades. The report also said academic performance for those children lagged significantly and that barely half homeless youths graduate from high school.

Gov. Jay Inslee’s administration asked for the legislation, and his wife, Trudi Inslee, has been active with groups and legislators working on the new goals. In the House, liberal Rep. Ruth Kagi, D-Seattle, is proposing House Bill 1436; in the Senate, conservative Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-Tacoma, is proposing Senate Bill 5404, an identical measure. The bills move the homeless programs to the Department of Commerce, which already oversees grants and other programs that deal with shelters. So far, both DSHS and Commerce are on board with the idea.

Charles Shelan, an advocate for the bill, is the engineer behind many of Olympia’s youth programs through the organization he leads, Community Youth Services. CYS runs a drop-in center for youth as well as a crisis residential center for both homeless and runaway youths, and it has a 10-bed overnight shelter for young adults up to the age of 24. Community Youth Services also provides street outreach and has transitional housing programs serving youths ages 16 to 21.

Shelan told The Olympian editorial board last week that it just makes sense to relocate the youth programs out of the state’s mega-agency, the Department of Social and Health Services. Shelan says the needs of the homeless will get better advocacy and focus if put in a single location at Commerce. Today the programs are at the Children’s Administration inside DSHS, where the homeless youth program is a “step child” to worthy efforts to help other vulnerable populations, he said.

The Mockingbird Society, which advocates for foster children in the state, is also strongly advocating for passage of the bill. Its founder and leader, Jim Theofelis, said in a statement that the legislation is the first of its kind in Washington and seeks to do what advocates have been seeking for years.

“We believe that youth homelessness should be prioritized by our state leaders and that all young people, no matter if they live in Walla Walla or Seattle, should expect equal access to services,” he said.

The idea certainly has merit, and it appears the stars may finally be aligned to put a better spotlight on this growing problem – and hopefully deliver better results for young people.