This past Friday, King County released their 2019 Point-In-Time Count, including the number of youth and young adults experiencing homelessness.

For the first time in recent years, the number of youth and young adults experiencing homelessness dropped significantly: 1,498 in 2017 to 1,089 in 2019. Physically counting people sleeping outside is an imperfect methodology, and excluding youth who are couch-surfing or doubled up masks the true number of young people experiencing homelessness. Nonetheless, these results are promising.

Both youth and young adults and veterans (the other population with significant decreases in homelessness) have benefited from increased, focused investments in services and supports. Within the past two years, the statewide Office of Homeless Youth has almost tripled the number of shelter beds for minors in King County, and the King County Youth Homelessness Demonstration Project (YHDP) has infused an additional $5 million in services for youth and young adults. When we tailor interventions to the unique needs of those served, and back them up with meaningful financial investments, we see results.

But a closer examination of the data complicates this picture: in 2018, 41% of unaccompanied youth and young adults experiencing homelessness were White and 23% were Black. In 2019, the percentages decreased to 38% for White youth and increased to 34% for Black youth—more than a 10% increase within one year. Latinx youth and Native youth also saw increases in 2019, each rising by 4%. While the prevalence of youth homelessness has gone down, disproportionality has risen. In other words, we’ve decreased overall rates of homelessness at the expense of equity. We are failing youth of color and we can—and must—do better.

What else do the data show?

  • Behavioral healthcare is key: Almost half of unaccompanied youth and young adults reported psychiatric or emotional conditions and a third reported drug or alcohol abuse. A recent report released by A Way Home Washington found that every year approximately “1,200 young people become homeless or unstably housed within 12 months of their discharge from publicly funded inpatient behavioral health treatment programs.” Washington has only 5 dedicated detox beds for youth, 93 Children’s Long-term In-patient Program (CLIP) beds, and no “in-patient mental health or substance use disorder programs…that serve the unique developmental needs of young adults” ages 18-24. If we expect to end youth homelessness, we must invest in behavioral healthcare both on the front-end, when youth are in crisis, and on the back-end, when youth are discharged from treatment or in-patient care.
  • Addressing developmental disabilities is essential: Alarmingly high rates of young people reported an intellectual disability or memory impairment (20%), physical disability (18%) or a traumatic brain injury (12%). Similar to behavioral healthcare, we need to make sure that systems of care related to developmental disabilities are robustly funded so that the most vulnerable young people do not get driven into homelessness.
  • Disproportionality among youth identified as LBGTQ and youth exiting foster care remains consistently high: We know both these populations are at higher risk of homelessness, comprising about a third of youth and young adults experiencing homelessness, respectively. While these rates have not gotten worse, they have not improved. Maintaining the status quo is no reason to celebrate.
  • Rates of unaccompanied minors experiencing homelessness declined—but rates of accompanied minors remain high: Unaccompanied minors experiencing homelessness dropped by over a half, decreasing to 82 in 2019. But if we include the rate of minors whose families are experiencing homelessness, the number jumps to 1550. Families are still struggling. A School House Washington report examining educational outcomes for students experiencing homelessness found that academic disparities were similar between students experiencing literal homelessness and students who were doubled up or unstably housed. The experience of homelessness—regardless of the presence of a parent or guardian—is destabilizing and can have long-lasting impacts.

Similar to previous years, approximately 50% of homeless adults experienced homelessness before they reached the age of 25. We know that ending youth homelessness is our best strategy to prevent adult homelessness and stop the cycle before it takes hold for a decade…. or even a lifetime. While we have reasons to feel hopeful, we have much more work to do—and that work must, above all, be centered in equity.