Tricia Raikes is being honored as a Champion of Change for her work to combat homelessness among children and youth.
Each night in the greater Seattle area, hundreds of children, youth, and young adults are unaccompanied and have no place to go for a warm, safe place to sleep. As a parent of three children, I find this fact heartbreaking and unacceptable.
Our community collectively spends over $7 million a year to combat youth and young adult homelessness and we have some of the best non-profit organizations in the country working on the front lines. Organizations such as YouthCare, Mockingbird Society and others provide excellent case management, housing, employment and education services to vulnerable youth. We are known nationally for innovative programs like the Groundwork Project or Catalyst Project that provide low-barrier, wrap-around services for homeless youth with complex needs.
Yet, these programs are not enough and demand only seems to grow. While we are rich in programs, we are poor in the systems that tie disparate programs or services together to provide efficient access points for young people in need and to ensure they are getting the right services at the right time. We also don’t have good data systems to sufficiently answer important macro-level questions such as: What’s the impact of the services youth receive? How many relapse into homelessness? If we had additional dollars, where is added capacity most needed?
As a community, we have lacked an intentional focus on preventing youth from falling into the homelessness system – whether it’s family reconciliation for young people who could return home or working with the child welfare, juvenile justice, or education systems on policies to avert the destiny of homelessness. Likewise, there is no coordinated system to engage young people who become homeless, to support them in seamlessly accessing the services they need across multiple providers, and to keep track of how they fare over time.
This realization is what led to a collective and powerful effort in the greater Seattle area this past year. Last fall, an extensive community process involving more than 100 stakeholders, including 30 homeless youth and young adults, was launched. Building Changes, a nonprofit intermediary with deep experience working on homelessness issues across the state, facilitated a six-month process to create an action plan to significantly enhance our region’s capacity to provide prevention programs, systematically assess needs and match youth/young adults with effective services and housing interventions, and improve coordinated data collection and reporting. Over 15 different funders, both private and public, came to the table to help guide this community process and I was proud to serve as one of the co-chairs along with leaders from United Way of King County and the Medina Foundation.
This community process resulted in “Priority Action Steps to Prevent and End Youth/Young Adult Homelessness,” a plan that was unanimously adopted by a group of funders, providers and community partners about two months ago. Since then, multiple funders have pledged over $3 million to support implementation of the plan. King County Department of Community and Human Services, which is overseeing similar systems efforts for homeless families, will implement the coordinated engagement and take the lead on developing a more comprehensive plan to address youth and young adult homelessness regionally. Program providers are working together with a renewed commitment to what can be accomplished together.
It still breaks my heart when I think of the kids who are experiencing homelessness today. Hearing directly from the youth has been one of the more powerful aspects of this planning process. I heard stories of trauma and loss of family bonds that were raw and often unresolved. They described the fits and starts of their journeys and how providers helped them along the way. Too often, I also heard how hard it was to find services, how fragmented the system was, and how they wished more providers and programs would work better together.
The Priority Action Steps Plan is a first step in responding to these needs. It is a step toward systematically tackling youth homelessness by preventing it and becoming smarter about supporting kids who are already homeless. And it’s a step that no one player or small group of stakeholders could accomplish on their own. Its success will require powerful, large systems like child welfare, juvenile justice, education, mental health and housing systems working with essential players such as providers, private and public funders, parents and youth themselves. And it will take a willingness to invest more today to fund the programs that are already working on the front lines. I’m optimistic that our collective effort will transform the way young people in our community experience homelessness in the future, hopefully by avoiding it altogether.
Tricia Raikes is Co-President of the Raikes Foundation