Minnie Bliesner knows the many ways kids in foster care can end up with no housing.
Bliesner was raised by foster parents starting when she was 7, and was able to stay in extended foster care while she enrolled in Eastern Washington University. But she knows plenty of foster kids who weren’t so lucky.
Some don’t realize they have an option to stay with their parents or receive state support after their 18th birthday, she said. Foster children who go on to college struggle over holiday breaks, when dorms are closed and most students with homes leave campus.
“Things can kind of slip through,” she said.
Bliesner, who’s now an advocate with the Mockingbird Society, was among the leaders who helped house 100 homeless youth in Spokane during a 100-day challenge this spring and summer. The city hit its goal, with 109 people under age 24 finding housing.
But Bliesner and other advocates who worked on the project say they’re just getting started.
Last week, leaders from Spokane, King and Pierce counties met to talk about their successes and discuss moving forward. In Spokane, social workers found many existing resources for homeless young people weren’t well-known and weren’t being used.
Matt Davis, a homeless program specialist with the city, said a number of structural changes will make it easier for homeless young people to find a place to live going forward.
Convincing landlords to rent to young people, who often have no credit or rental history, can be difficult. As part of the challenge, the city received $50,000 in funding which it’s using to pay a double deposit on apartments, incentivizing landlords to give it a chance.
“They can take a chance on these youth and not rent to them at a loss,” Davis said. Funds can also help young people with initial move-in costs.
Young people also have more options for subsidized rent through the Spokane Housing Authority, which redirected some rapid rehousing vouchers that were being used for chronically homeless adults.
Davis said the city realized chronically homeless people often need more concentrated services, like mental health care, and do better in permanent supportive housing projects with social workers on site. Many of them weren’t doing well in independent apartments, so it made sense to put those vouchers to better use.
Bliesner said change has made the waiting process much easier for young people.
“There are some people that have been waiting three years to get a voucher,” she said.
But even with a shorter wait list, there’s still work to be done.
A voucher doesn’t always lead to an apartment, something Sonny Lee, 20, and his girlfriend Kim Stapleton are struggling with. The pair, who are expecting a child in a few months, have been homeless and couch surfing for about a year. They got a voucher about three weeks ago, after changes made during the challenge sped up the process.
Still, as of last Friday, they had yet to find a landlord who was willing to rent to them. A housing voucher comes with a list of requirements, including an inspection, that can take a few weeks to fulfill. With Spokane’s rental vacancy rate hovering below 2 percent, landlords want to get tenants into new units as quickly as possible.
“It’s not easy,” Lee said.
A longer-term solution might be a shelter or apartment building catering to young people who are legally adults but still vulnerable in the city’s adult shelter. Davis said the city is exploring that option, and has been surveying homeless and formerly homeless young people.