Good and bad news on homelessness

The yearly census of homeless people living in Thurston County has good and bad news this year. The numbers of homeless adults declined but the number of homeless public school students is rising to alarming levels.

Volunteers did their tally of adult homeless people in January by going into community-run shelters and holding a Homeless Connect event. It provided meals and services to draw people in to be counted, but might not have been as complete as past counts. The total this year was 474 people compared with 599 last year.

The number of unsheltered, including those sleeping in cars or parks and abandoned buildings also declined – to 163, down from 263 the previous year.

That’s not quite meeting a county goal of cutting the homeless ranks in half within a decade, but progress nonetheless. Especially hopeful is that the number deemed chronically homeless fell to 79, down from 134 in 2014 and less than half the levels seen in 2007 and 2013.

Our community can be proud of its effort — including the new Interfaith Works shelter and a SideWalk program that connects people with housing, rental help and case management.

But that good news is undercut by the growth in homeless teens, as measured in separate, yearlong count by Thurston County schools.

The new school count for 2014 showed an astonishing 1,628 youths without a fixed home, the most ever counted locally — and a significant share of the more than 30,000 homeless students counted statewide in other surveys. That county figure is up from 1,123 in 2013 and includes youths staying temporarily with friends and family.

This is a 154 percent increase since 2006.

Clearly more action by the state is in order, and a bill awaiting Gov. Jay Inslee’s signature this week could move give the state tools to be more effective helping homeless youth.

Inslee requested Senate Bill 5404 and his wife, Trudi, championed it. The measure establishes a state Office of Homeless Youth Prevention and Protection. It creates the new office by Jan. 1, 2016, and asks it to coordinate efforts to improve services and delivery of stable housing, family reconciliation, education and employment, and improve the well-being of youths.

The bipartisan bill was sponsored by Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-Tacoma, and its co-sponsors included Sen. Jeannie Darneille, D-Tacoma; a companion measure in the House was sponsored by Rep. Ruth Kagi, D-Seattle, and Rep. Hans Zeiger, R-Puyallup. The measure was backed strongly by the Mockingbird Society, which advocates for better foster care and ending youth homelessness.

Our hope is this bill — and new office — can put a stronger spotlight on what is needed to protect our most vulnerable young people and to coordinate existing resources.

We also hope it provides us with more insight about why the number of homeless kids is still rising, even in an improving economy. To solve this alarming problem, we need to understand its causes.