When Spokane’s Crosswalk teen shelter hired behavioral health counselor Kaitlyn Lee last year with money from a new state grant, part of her job was to shoot pool in the common room with the teenagers. Hanging around, eating lunch with the residents, or simply making herself available by sitting at the front desk is an important part of the job of a counselor.
“It’s about building a relationship,” said Bridget Cannon, senior vice president of youth services at Volunteers of America, which runs Crosswalk.
Many teenagers have had bad experiences with therapy — they’ve been forced into it, or they feel it’s stigmatizing, Cannon said. In the Crosswalk program, when they need help, they can turn to someone they trust and don’t have to ask a stranger to call a service provider and book an appointment that could be weeks away and conducted by videoconference. “We can just say, ‘Kaitlyn over there. Yeah, she can help,’” Cannon said.
But Lee’s position is only funded through June. The money to hire her came from the Washington State Office of Homeless Youth Prevention and Protection, which distributed $400,000 to youth housing providers for behavioral health treatment last year. Now, the funds needed to renew the grants haven’t been included in Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposed two-year spending plan, released in December. And it remains to be seen whether the state Legislature will decide it’s important enough to reinstate, given the looming state budget cuts.
Kim Justice, the office of homeless youth’s executive director, said the funds allow residential care providers to provide vital mental health services for young people who are having a tough time on their own. “It means that young people get direct access to mental health support, which has become increasingly important as people struggle to cope with the pandemic,” Justice said.
On the western side of the Cascades, leaders of Community Youth Services, headquartered in Olympia, are among those worried about losing the behavioral health funding. The money they received has expanded their reach and helps pay for LaNaia Colbert’s position as the agency’s family services clinical director.
Colbert said almost every youth who has come through Community Youth Services shelters since August has been given an assessment and a treatment recommendation, information that can be passed along to social workers when the young people leave the crisis residential centers.
In the past, there had been more limited funding for these services, a particular problem for youth coming from other counties and those who are uninsured.
The funds have also allowed Colbert to run focus groups for teenagers to help them with basic coping skills like regulating their emotions, which is essential for family reconciliation and placement in long-term foster homes.
The state funding for behavioral health can be used broadly for young people’s emotional wellness, without having to obtain a diagnosis or tying it to billable hours — another perk for providers dealing with a mobile population and only a brief window to engage them.
Colbert starts her weekly sessions with a check-in. They usually have a “mindfulness minute,” followed by a presentation helping the young people better understand and cope with the challenges they face.
One popular presentation focused on brain development and an explanation of the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain responsible for problem-solving and impulse control, and still undergoing growth into a young person’s early 20s. “So, they learn that when I had this explosion, this is what happened in me,” Colbert said, “and here’s how to get back to my thinking brain.”
YouthCare, a King County organization, used the now-jeopardized grant funding to hire an on-site therapist at their two under age-18 shelters. In a report on its work, the organization described the therapist as “vital in identifying behavioral health issues and advocating for youth to receive necessary long-term services.” The therapist has also enabled YouthCare to serve young people with more significant behavioral health needs, by providing mental health assessments and treatment planning, individual sessions, family sessions and crisis intervention to support shelter staff, according to the report.
Youth housing providers have turned to The Mockingbird Society, which leads the Washington Coalition for Homeless Youth Advocacy, to communicate to the state Legislature the need for continuing this mental health funding stream.
“Over the last 10 months, we have seen how profoundly young people are impacted by the COVID pandemic,” said Liz Trautman, the group’s director of public policy and advocacy. “This is compounded for young people experiencing homelessness or housing instability — their needs continue to increase.”
Trautman and others have been urging legislators to restore the funding and have had success convincing Rep. Lisa Callan, a member of the Office of Homeless Youth Advisory Committee.
“We really need to make sure we’re getting resources that are accessible and where the youth are when they need it,” Callan said in an interview with The Imprint.
Because the money needs to be added as a budget item rather than a piece of legislation, Callan said she needs to reach out to legislators to ensure the issue doesn’t get overlooked. The $800,000 — amounting to $400,000 a year over two years — is better spent now, rather than later when young adults are in acute psychiatric need or in more costly settings like jails and hospitals.
Without the previous funding streams, the youth-serving organizations may have to discontinue the behavioral health services they had previously offered — potentially jeopardizing their clients’ lives and hope for safe and supportive homes.
“If we don’t have access to the behavioral health youth need, we’ve lost a window to get them either reunification or the support they need for the next steps stabilizing and creating a healthy future,” Callan said.