All Home King County released its January 2020 Point-in-Time count results last week and there is cause for both hope and concern. While the count’s methodology has multiple limitations—such as exempting people who are couch-surfing and relying on volunteers to literally count people sleeping outside on one given night—the count offers us a consistent snapshot in time to compare annually. This year, the number of people experiencing homelessness in King County increased by 5%, moving from 11,199 in 2019 to 11,751 in 2020. However, for the second year in a row, the number of young people experiencing homelessness declined (dropping from 1,518 in 2018, to 1,089 in 2019, to 955 in 2020).

Over the past five years, young people have benefited from dedicated investments: the creation of the state Office of Homeless Youth in 2015, the passage of King County Best Starts for Kids that same year, and the King County Ending Youth Homelessness Campaign in 2018. While none of these initiatives truly address the issue at scale, they do show that targeted resources make a positive impact on lowering rates of youth homelessness.

But this year we face challenges like none other: historic social upheaval and trauma caused by the novel Coronavirus pandemic colliding with this country’s four-hundred-year history of institutionalized racism and systemic violence against Black people. At the same, the King County Ending Youth Homelessness Campaign, which pledged to end youth homelessness by 2021, has been suspended as King County moves forward with creating a new consolidated regional authority.

We know that dedicated resources for young people work and we know that one-size-fits-all models do not. Young people are at a unique developmental stage in their lives, requiring unique service models that are age-appropriate and tailored to their needs and goals. As the King Country Regional Authority moves forward, we must harness the lessons learned and sustain the gains we’ve made.

Key changes in 2020

Racial disparities

As in previous years, BIPOC youth (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) continue to experience homelessness at disproportionately higher rates. However, in 2020, the rate of Black youth experiencing homelessness declined by 13%, moving from 34% in 2019 to 21% in 2020. Unfortunately, the decrease was not consistent across all racial demographics. The homelessness rates for Native American youth, for example, more than doubled in 2020, from 10% in 2019 to 21% in 2020. Similarly, the rate of Latinx youth went up by 8%, increasing from 20% in 2019 to 28% in 2020. The homeless youth system must work harder to undo institutionalized racism and oppression to reverse these long-standing racial disparities.

Unsheltered youth

For the second year in a row, the percentage of young people who were sleeping outside without shelter decreased: in 2018, 75% of unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness were unsheltered, in 2019 the rate declined to 68%, and in 2020 it declined even more significantly to 44%. This shows our system is improving access to shelter and ensuring that less young people sleep outside.

Minors experiencing homelessness

While the overall number of young people experiencing homelessness declined, the rates of minors, ages 12-17, experiencing homelessness tripled: from 8% in 2019 to 26% in 2020. These youth are the most vulnerable on the streets: the most susceptible to human trafficking, exploitation, and assault. Given the increase in shelter beds for minors, this increase is cause for alarm, necessitating a deeper look into the structural factors driving family conflict and youth homelessness, as well as deeper investments in our youth homelessness prevention programs.

Mental Health

The rates of young people experiencing psychiatric or emotional conditions increased in 2020 by 7% (47% in 2019 to 54% in 2020). As we navigate the lasting trauma and stress of 2020, we can only anticipate these numbers increasing, underscoring the need for increased behavioral health resources in our community.