Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Helping Homeless Youth Realize Their Boundless Promise

January 16, 2013

A few years ago I was stopped on a freeway off-ramp on my way to a meeting in downtown Seattle.  As I sat there, I noticed a group of homeless people gathered under the overpass.  Then I saw something that shook me.

A teenage girl was being led away to a dark corner by two much older men. Her resemblance in age and stature to my youngest daughter took my breath away.  The fear I felt for her was palpable. I also felt intense frustration and anger at all the people in her life that must have let her down. 

“She’s just a child,” I kept thinking.  How did she end up here?  How will this trauma shape her belief in herself and her hope for the future? How can our community make sure our youth have better options when they are alone and in crisis?

I was powerless to help that girl in that moment. But soon after my husband, Jeff, and I prioritized Raikes Foundation funding to help understand and remedy the problem of youth and young adult homelessness in our region.

We learned that on any given night in our community, about 1,000 young people do not have a safe and stable place to sleep. And in the course of a year, as many as 5,000 unaccompanied youth and young adults experience homelessness in King County.  

Last year, the Committee to End Homelessness in King County (CEH) – which includes representatives from nonprofit organizations, business, local government, homeless advocacy groups, the faith community and individuals who are or have been homeless agreed to prioritize the need to develop a differentiated plan to address and end youth and young adult homelessness. There are many reasons a young person might become homeless: They’re unable to resolve an intolerable family conflict; they’re the victims of physical or sexual abuse; they’re rejected by their families because of their sexual orientation; or their families are poor and simply can’t support them.

Working with the United Way of King County, Building Changes, the Raikes Foundation, and more than 100 other private and public partners -- including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, provider agencies and homeless youth – CEH adopted a blueprint last year called the Priority Action Steps to Prevent and End Youth and Young Adult Homelessness in King County.

The plan has three primary goals:

  • Establish prevention and early intervention programs so that young people can either be kept out of the homeless system altogether, or reached quickly with support that truly meets their needs.
  • Develop a coordinated engagement system to harmonize and improve the quality of support for each young homeless person.
  • Improve coordination of data collection and reporting among providers and funders of homeless youth services so we have better information to guide decisions about how to ultimately end youth homelessness.

To date, more than $3 million in new funding, primarily from private sources, has been identified to support implementation of the Priority Action Steps.  Collaborating with our CEH partners, the goal is to scale successful models with help from the public sector.

Thanks to these efforts, King County is poised to become a national leader on combatting homelessness among youth and young adults, just as it has been on aiding addressing chronically homeless adults and, with leadership from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, ending homelessness for families. 

Still, given that homelessness has become such a pervasive and seemingly intractable challenge, some might question whether these efforts are worthwhile.

First, the economic case is compelling.  Among homeless adults, 35 percent first experienced homelessness between the ages of 12-24.   The longer a young person is homeless, the more difficulty she will have getting back on a successful track and exiting the homeless system.  So it makes good financial sense to invest early and prevent the cycle of homelessness before it starts.

Second, it is the right thing to do.  Homeless youth are human beings with most of their lives still ahead of them. Like all children, they have boundless promise.  Or rather, they have promise that is bounded only by our ability to help them find their way. 

We and our partners believe it is right to aim higher for homeless youth.  We want to take them beyond mere stability, to happiness and success -- to the goals that all adults have for the children in their care.

We are proud to be a part of the great work happening in King County, and we look forward to aiming and climbing higher together.

This post is based on a keynote speech that Tricia Raikes delivered to the Legislative Breakfast of the Committee to End Homelessness in King County on January 9, 2012.  Because of the strong connection between youth and family homelessness, the Raikes and Gates Foundations are working in partnership in Washington State to address these issues.”

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