January 16, 2013
Vol: 20 No: 3

Community & Editorial

Ending homelessness for Washington’s young people in 2013 will require an all-out effort

By Jim Theofelis / Advisory Board

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I founded The Mockingbird Society in 2001 to ensure vulnerable children and youth are not deserted by the very systems put in place to serve their needs. With more than 30 years of experience as a therapist for children, young people and families, I have seen firsthand a foster care system that too often transitions youth out of care and into homelessness. It is our collective responsibility to ensure that these youth — who enter foster care through no fault of their own — receive the same opportunities to succeed as any other child.

If we are to fulfill this responsibility, we must work together to prevent vulnerable children and youth from becoming homeless, while helping those on the street safely return to stable housing and reconnect with the larger community. In collaboration with advocates and service providers across the state, The Mockingbird Society will advocate this legislative session for three policies that provide safety, support and opportunity for Washington’s children.

In order to prevent youth on the run from becoming homeless or falling victim to predators, we support legislation that will allow a young person to stay at a homeless-youth shelter for 72 hours before shelter officials are required to notify that young person’s parents or caregivers. This is an amendment to a portion of the “Becca Bill,” which, in an effort to help parents track down runaway youth, required that shelters wait only eight hours before notifing parents or guardians.

Unfortunately, this resulted in many cases in which young people fled from a licensed shelter, causing them even more trauma on the streets.

The eight-hour notification period was a pilot program that expired last year.

The extra time we’re asking for will allow youth to remain safe within a shelter while staff members work to reunite young people with their parents or, when necessary, find suitable housing elsewhere. We want this 72-hour notification period to be a permanent policy to help protect youth in crisis.

Our second policy push centers on foster youth aging out of the system. For decades, a foster youth’s 18th birthday has been a frightening time. For more than 500 youth in Washington state each year, it meant getting kicked out into the street with a trash bag full of their belongings. This led to high rates of homelessness, incarceration and poverty.

With programs like Extended Foster Care, youth now have a choice. Currently, this program allows youth to remain in foster care until they turn 21 to pursue their education. This legislative session, we ask our elected leaders to allow all youth aging out of care to take advantage of this critical program. It will help these young people transition into adulthood with the support necessary to lead safer lives.

Finally, we support the Youth Opportunities Act, which prohibits courts and the state from disseminating, selling or making juvenile offense records public. For too many youth a record due to a run-in with the law can create a barrier to leaving homelessness. This bill provides smart community protections to ensure that police and prosecutors have access to this information for those who continue to offend. But this legislation will also ensure that young people who do make significant changes are able to secure an apartment, job or other resources necessary for self-sufficiency.

Through my work with The Mockingbird Society, I am proud to be part of some very exciting and innovative work to prevent and eliminate youth homelessness in King County. The 2013 legislative session will be another opportunity for our social service organizations, the United Way, philanthropists and local government to come together to send a clear message:  We are a community that values our young people, and we want to provide them genuine opportunity to improve their lives. We want our legislators to dedicate resources so that more young people can avoid homelessness or leave the streets behind.

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