On Jan. 12, the Washington State Legislature embarked on what many predict will be the most challenging and contentious legislative session in decades. Last September, the state Supreme Court held legislators in contempt for failing to make enough progress toward fully funding public education. With legislators’ attention primarily focused on meeting that mandate and avoiding possible sanctions, long-time social service partners and allies may be at odds for dwindling funds.
Despite the challenges ahead, our community must not ignore our moral — and thereby, financial — obligation to support youth and young adults whose lives have been impacted by abuse, neglect and homelessness.
The Mockingbird Society believes that our state should not send youth who age out of foster care to the streets. Since 2006, our organization has worked with community partners to create and implement the Extended Foster Care (EFC) program in Washington state. EFC gives eligible young people the choice to continue receiving foster care services until age 21 in exchange for going to work, looking for jobs or staying in school. Over the last four legislative sessions, The Mockingbird Society and our allies have successfully advocated for youth to continue to receive foster care, including young people pursuing secondary or vocational education or participating in a program designed to overcome barriers to employment.
This year, we will advocate for inclusion of a final category: foster youth with documented medical conditions. They would find inclusion with the passage of HB1436/SB5404. With this critical reform, our state’s most vulnerable young people will have the support they need to successfully transition to adulthood and avoid homelessness. If our advocacy is successful, youth in this category will join their peers who are already eligible for the EFC program — ensuring that youth who receive a diagnosis of cancer or face another medical crisis continue to receive safe housing and support.
As of today, EFC provides foster care services to 425 youth ages 18 to 21 who, just a few years ago, would have been discharged from foster care and into homelessness on their 18th birthdays.
We also hope to break new ground with the Homeless Youth Act (HY Act), HB1436/SB5404. More than 40 organizations have worked closely with Gov. Jay Inslee’s office to draft and advocate for the passage of the HY Act. This group of organizations, known as the Washington Coalition for Homeless Youth Advocacy (WACHYA), represents a robust statewide effort dedicated to improving the lives of youth and young adults experiencing homelessness.
The HY Act would establish the goal that Washington would not discharge our young people from systems of care, such as foster care or the juvenile justice system, out onto the streets. The HY Act will also address regional disparities in service delivery. Homelessness is not a regional issue. It affects more than the young people in King County; it impacts all communities, urban and rural, in our state.
Finally, the HY Act will create the state Office of Homeless Youth Programs, which will eliminate red tape so that youth can access critical services and programs, no matter where they live. The Mockingbird Society and our allies believe that coordination at the state level will bring us closer to truly preventing and ending youth homelessness.
For us, this session is about ensuring that foster and homeless youth have access to the same opportunities as young people from intact families, regardless of the budget crisis our state faces.
Help us ensure that our lawmakers implement these critical policy reforms to help our children, youth and families succeed. Join more than 200 young people for our Youth Advocacy Day on Feb. 27, to advocate for these youth-inspired solutions. Call your legislator to let him or her know you support these bills, and sign up for our advocacy alerts to stay updated on how you can help move these priorities forward.