Xzavier Williams was 14 years old when his mom’s deteriorating mental health led to him entering foster care, where he struggled at six different high schools before dropping out. At age 19, he lost a benefits package for older foster youth and landed on the streets, joining the ranks of the 1,400 youth and young adults who leave Washington state programs and end up homeless every year.
A state law passed in 2018 was supposed to end the practice of youth exiting foster care into homelessness, and better protect homeless youth who are at risk of physical and sexual assault, human trafficking and emotional trauma. Yet despite the law’s ambitious goal, underfunding and the COVID-19 pandemic have meant that young people like Williams are still likely to end up with nowhere safe and stable to sleep at night — a tragic outcome for almost 30% of Washington’s former foster youth one year after leaving the system, state figures show.
“The level of culpability the state had in creating the youth homelessness problems in our communities across the state was shocking,” said state Sen. Jeannie Darneille (D), who sponsored Senate Bill 6560 after she learned about the problem from a local homelessness population count.
Darneille said she had spent years trying to bolster the foster care and mental health systems, but was “saddened and shocked to learn that our investments hadn’t helped many who became homeless almost immediately upon leaving.”
Under current state law, beginning the first of this month, “it is the goal of the legislature” that “any unaccompanied youth discharged from a publicly funded system of care in our state will be discharged into safe and stable housing.” That includes young people exiting the child welfare, behavioral health and juvenile justice systems.
Last January, the Office of Homeless Youth released a report based on the nearly 7,000 youth and young adults ages 12 to 24 who left state institutions in 2017 detailing changes necessary to successfully implement the law. The youth required smoother transitions out of foster care, improved community connections and expanded housing opportunities. While updated figures are not yet available, a report released this month suggested additional funding and resources are needed “to move the needle.”
“It’s hard to solve any large social problem by just flipping a switch and making a change,” said Kim Justice, executive director of the state Office of Homeless Youth. “You have to scale and phase in and continue to learn.”
The joint update from Justice’s office, the state Health Care Authority and the Department of Children, Youth and Families, amounts to a one-page memo on progress toward meeting the law. It details improvements in housing, mental health support, and program and staffing expansions that have been made to meet the law’s goals.
But the brief report gives no numbers about how likely it is that there will be an end to youth homelessness envisioned under SB 6560. Interviews with leaders at the responsible agencies reveal they haven’t yet achieved the law’s goal.
To date, the state agencies have primarily focused on increased staffing. The child welfare department created an Adolescent Programs division, and added a program manager for youth exiting foster care and three juvenile rehabilitation counselors to help young people with housing. The Health Care Authority hired a stable housing policy lead and an engagement coordinator to support juvenile offenders with mental health needs.
For its part, the Office of Homeless Youth launched a 15-bed transitional living pilot program for 16- and 17-year-olds.
While advocates applaud these changes, interviews with representatives of the agencies reveal the problem of youth being exited into homelessness from state care is far from solved.
“We are severely lacking the resources necessary to make the systemic improvements to change this outcome,” a spokesperson for the child welfare department stated in an email, noting that additional investments “in youth and young adult housing, transition programs, transition supports, and mental/behavioral health resources” are still needed.
The update released last week calls for legislative action to fund more housing, placement options for young people in foster care, mobile crisis units and respite care, temporary relief for parents and caregivers of youth with behavioral challenges.
“We need two core things — capacity and resources. We’re not talking about really large sums of funding to make progress,” said homeless youth director Justice. “This is about prevention and our best chance is to set people up for success while they’re still in our care and custody.”
The most recent state statistics show that 8% of youth and young adults ages 12 to 24 who left publicly funded programs were homeless within three months. A year later, that figure grew to 21%. By far, the greatest number of young people become homeless after leaving residential behavioral health programs.
People of color are disproportionately represented in the number of young people who become homeless after exiting state programs. For example, African Americans make up about 4% of the state’s population according to the 2016 census, but they accounted for 19% of homeless youth in the follow-up period, according to the latest statistics, from 2017.
When he turned 19, Williams returned to live with his mom. But she had only agreed to the living situation because she thought that she’d get a check from the state’s extended foster care program, which serves 18 to 21-year-olds, he said in an interview with The Imprint. But Xzavier’s eligibility for benefits was terminated when he did not comply with strict work and study requirements. “When my mom found out there was no money,” he said, “she kicked me out.”
As a result, Williams, who is now 21 and struggles with mental health disorders, couch surfed for a few months, stayed at shelters occasionally, unsuccessfully sought out relatives for help, and finally determined he would buy a car to live in.
Rhea Yo, a lawyer at the Legal Counsel for Youth and Children who has represented Williams, said the system “really doesn’t center those who are most vulnerable.” When she first met the teen, he faced multiple barriers; he didn’t have an ID or a reliable cell phone and was coping with physical and mental problems. Yo said those difficulties made it hard for him to meet the requirements for extended foster care benefits, that include regular check-ins with the court and social workers and the ability to show consistent attempts to work, study or pursue those pathways.
Given the budget crunch in Washington state brought on by the coronavirus, advocates and government officials are unsure if the Legislature will provide enough funds to achieve the goal of no longer discharging youth into homelessness.
Sen. Darneille said while she expects it will be a tough year for funding, she doesn’t think the Legislature will “decimate” the youth homelessness prevention programs. And she believes the law has been a success to date in gathering data and coordinating the agencies needed to mobilize resources.
Thanks to Yo and others, Williams has found help. He’s currently living in an apartment managed by the YMCA, where he’s getting support and things are now finally “going alright.”
So, while the Jan. 1 deadline for the law arrived without assurance that the state won’t release youth into homlessness, the Office of Homeless Youth will continue to work with the responsible agencies to track the numbers and coordinate efforts to ensure that all young people have secure and safe housing.
“Our accountability is to the people who aren’t getting what they need,” said Diana Cockrell, head of behavioral health for the Health Care Authority.