In January, when a preliminary report identifying gaps in state-led programs to prevent youth homelessness was released in Washington state, it was clear who was being left out or ill-served: youth of color and those with disabilities.
Despite the great diversity of homeless youth, existing programs, the report revealed, mostly catered to “able-bodied, cisgender, neurotypical, white, middle-class, English-speaking” young people.
Now, with input from people who’ve known housing insecurity firsthand, the Office of Homeless Youth is working on the next step: tackling those flaws. Its group of steering committee advisers that meets weekly includes a Native American woman who has raised children and grandchildren, a formerly homeless man living with autism, a community group for people of color and an Indigenous human trafficking collaborative.
Adviser Milo Edwards, 19, has deep insight into what would have made a difference in his life, and he’s applying that as he works on the state’s homelessness prevention plan.
Edwards, who has autism, said he began couch-surfing at age 15 after fleeing what he described as an isolated and abusive father in the woods of northern Idaho. When he came out as transgender, the news in his tiny town of 183 led to threats at school and he took off to the town of Newport, Washington. There, an emergency services program for youth connected him to a host family, and he finished high school.
Edwards quickly worked to help others, taking a job at a the same drop-in center for homeless youth near his new home that helped him. Discovering he was on the autism spectrum helped him see the signs in other young people he was now working with, and he learned the importance of early identification. That improved his ability to connect with young people. “We bought fidget toys,” he said, which “allowed our clients to focus more when they talked.”
He also tried to create a less chaotic atmosphere and make the intake process more comfortable by limiting verbal questions and giving homeless youth the option to fill out paperwork on their own. He also sought to simplify the information required.
“A lot of the questions on the coordinated entry are really easy to retraumatize clients,” he said.
The number of youth with disabilities facing or experiencing homelessness is not small. In 2018, as many as 9,200 Washington youth between ages 14 and 24 lived in shaky housing situations, according to the state’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, which helps people living with disabilities get jobs.
Yet too often, the Office of Homeless Youth report found, the services provided by Washington programs fall short in large and more subtle ways. Bright fluorescent lights or highway noise, for example, “may negatively impact the young person, leading them to sleep outside.”
Zack Siddeek, a coordinator at The Arc of King County, a nonprofit that “promotes and protects the human and civil rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” said the statewide report released in January is the first he’s seen that includes discussions specific to autistic youth who are homeless.
Their needs, along with other gaps in current prevention programs, are being addressed in the months ahead by community members working with the state’s Office of Youth Homelessness.
Siddeek, who is autistic and also contributed to the report, said race can negatively impact diagnoses, resulting in “racialized ableism.” When a white kid melts down, teachers or authorities may consider autism, but if it’s a youth of color, he said, “Oftentimes, they get suspended or expelled.” That leads to white youth receiving autism diagnoses in their early teens and receiving the appropriate help and support, he said, while Black people often wait much longer, until they are well into adulthood.
At least 13,000 young people between ages 12 and 24 are homeless in Washington, according to state statistics published in 2019. An additional 40,112 public school students, most living with their families, experienced homelessness during the 2017-2018 school year, district data showed.
Those numbers are likely an undercount: Homeless numbers often miss young people and families who double up with friends or relatives, and they were tallied before the pandemic.
The Office of Homeless Youth’s research and reporting on prevention programs was driven by a 2020 legislative directive. Its findings also reveal that while homeless youth with disabilities are too often unseen, people of color are overrepresented. Programs “are not working for communities of color,” according to the state report released in January.
Homelessness among Black, American Indian and Alaskan Native and multiracial youth often evolves from the impact of the child welfare system on those communities. As of last July, children of color were placed in out-of-home foster care at more than twice the rate of their white peers in Washington. Twelve months after leaving the foster care and juvenile justice systems, of those Washington youth who ended up homeless, 60% were youth of color.
The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, which tracks homeless students, also found youth of color to be overrepresented, with 7% of American Indian and Alaskan Native schoolchildren and 8% of Black children homeless, compared with less than 3% of white students.
“Our community is in pain,” said Jacque Julien, executive director of Communities of Color Coalition, which is working with the Office of Homeless Youth on its prevention work.
When it comes time to serve homeless youth, Julien said racism can be both subtle and blatant at organizations, which are predominantly white-led. Several years ago, she said, a white supervisor asked her to police Black teens – not their white peers – at a drop-in center for homeless youth, worried they would take “extra snacks.”
The steering committee is co-convened by the Office of Homeless Youth, Communities of Color Coalition and the Innovations Human Trafficking Collaborative, an Indigenous survivor-led social justice nonprofit based in Olympia.
Eight caregivers are also working on youth homelessness prevention. They include Mikki Swimmer, 54, a parent and grandparent who has taken in relatives from the foster care system. Swimmer grew up mostly in Seattle, and when she was 13 and 14, spent days away from home on the streets.
With ancestors from multiple tribal communities, she said too often young people are ill-served by homeless providers, the tribal courts and state courts that do not communicate with each other, causing “a runaround” for caregivers, parents and youth.
As a result, she sees young people, including relatives in her family, aging out of the child welfare system without support – even in a system that is supposed to provide housing and financial assistance to foster youth beyond age 21 during the pandemic.
Swimmer said she’s worked hard to connect her kin with benefits they’re eligible for, but it leaves her wondering: “What happens to kids that don’t have a family?”