We have long known that previous counts of 800-1,000 homeless youth in our region underestimated the true number of homeless and unstably housed youth in our community. Part of this discrepancy is that youth and young adults are hesitant to identify themselves as “homeless,” instead preferring to see their housing instability or homelessness as a temporary moment in time. Youth are also more likely than adults to ask family and friends for short-term opportunities to be off the street, patching together a few days or weeks at a time. Growth in this year’s count reflects a more comprehensive method and definition of who could be included as homeless.
The number of unsheltered young people in Seattle/King County is now reported to be 1,142—a significant increase from just over 820 for the last couple of years. Two years ago, YouthCare increased our street outreach and engagement services to ensure that youth currently living on the streets could build trustworthy supports, access basic supplies, and connect to services. Despite these increased efforts, the 2017 count results shine a harsh spotlight on the underlying factors driving youth homelessness: cycles of poverty, lack of affordable housing, skyrocketing rents, wages that fall below the cost of living in our area, lack of mental health and chemical dependency services, underfunded systems of care, and the lasting impact of institutionalized racism, homophobia, and more.
Homeless youth and young adults in our community are disproportionately youth of color, immigrants, LGBTQ, or are navigating the barriers of mental health, substance abuse disorders, or physical disabilities. Nearly a quarter report they are homeless due to loss of employment, and 20% report being homeless because they were kicked out.
For the more than 40 years since we were founded, YouthCare has developed unique expertise in helping young people stabilize and move ahead with their lives. We know what works: from shelter and meals today, to safe housing and reconnecting to school and training opportunities the next. When youth are engaged in our individualized services, they thrive and begin to think again about the future.
That the numbers of homeless youth in our region have increased is a clarion call to all of us who care about the young people struggling in our community. We must continue to reach out, offer them support and innovative services, and encourage them to reach for their potential.
For some young people, the pathway to self-sufficiency is longer and more complicated than it is for others—shelter for one day or a single meal will not bring transformation. Instead, these resources are part of our immediate response and focus to keep youth safe. But this is only a first step. To truly help homeless youth and young adults transform and thrive, our community must continue to invest in mental health services, affordable housing, diverse education and job training opportunities, and systems-level policy changes that create a more just and equitable community for everyone.
YouthCare remains steadfast in our belief that we can end youth homelessness in our community. Our region has the resources, the experts, and the will to be one of the few urban communities that answers homelessness with aggressive and innovative programs. YouthCare remains committed to serving each and every youth we meet, with proven programming and with the flexibility to evolve and meet the needs of young people experiencing homelessness in our community.
Homeless youth are not homeless due to choice. We expect to have many more conversations about All Home’s report and the 2017 point-in-time count. We welcome the chance to examine where, and how, young people are falling through the cracks, and how we can continue to make improvements and grow. YouthCare knows how to help youth move forward in their lives. While this news is sobering, it is also a chance to renew our determination. Nothing means more than the future of our young people. Our youth need us all now, more than ever.