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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Jim Theofelis: To heal and find a home, vulnerable youth need our support

By Jim Theofelis A Way Home Washington

No young person should be without a safe and stable place to call home. Yet, here in Washington state, we face a youth and young adult homelessness epidemic that impacts all 39 counties on both sides of the mountains. What’s more, the most vulnerable young people – those who have experienced trauma or are struggling to overcome mental illness or substance use disorder – are forced to navigate inadequate behavioral health systems that are failing them.

New research commissioned by A Way Home Washington reveals what many young people and families impacted by behavioral health crises have known for quite some time: they are not receiving the support they need to heal. In the report From Inpatient Treatment to Homelessness: Envisioning a Path Toward Healing and Safe Housing for Young People in Washington State, we examined the housing status of youth (12-17 years old) and young adults (18-24 years old) who accessed inpatient mental health and/or substance use disorder programs.

The results are shocking. Of the estimated 1,800 young people leaving all public systems of care in Washington who subsequently experience homelessness or unstable housing every year, nearly two-thirds (1,178) come from the inpatient behavioral health system. There is a dearth of housing resources for young people being discharged from an inpatient program. This means that when a young person exits an inpatient program, due to a lack of housing resources, they often are not connected with housing and supportive services that will best ensure a smooth transition from treatment to community.

Statewide providers on the ground, such as Daybreak Youth Services in Spokane, see the cycle of despair many young people experience when they arrive at their doors. While residential care provides safety, connection, and healing – too many face the unknown when they leave. Absent comprehensive and developmentally appropriate services, too many young people end up homeless or unstably housed thereby losing the positive impact of their treatment experience including the most precious resource of all: hope. Hope that they can build an adult life that is not driven by substance abuse and/or their newly diagnosed mental health disorder.

Last fall, Spokane, was selected as one of A Way Home Washington’s inaugural pilot communities for the Anchor Community Initiative, an innovative program to end youth homelessness through coordinated efforts that bring all parts of the community to the table to develop a unique plan that covers prevention, long-term housing, treatment services, employment, and educational attainment.

While we are moving forward to end youth homelessness in Spokane and across the state, there is more we must do. That begins with ensuring our state has high quality treatment programs – both inpatient and community-based outpatient care – that are accessible and developmentally appropriate. When a young person has the courage to say “yes” to treatment, we must be able to say “yes” in return. That means having enough capacity to accept young people immediately into a program, and ensuring community-based support and safe housing is available upon discharge.

There is good reason to believe this will be a powerful legislative session, moving Washington forward toward improving our state behavioral health system. A Way Home Washington has identified key strategies that must be achieved to prevent and end youth and young adult homelessness. Strengthening families, supporting school personnel as “first responders,” and stopping our public systems from discharging young people into homelessness are critical to ending this crisis.

Last year, the state took a big step forward by passing Substitute Senate Bill (SSB) 6560, which requires a statewide plan to ensure young people have this access upon being discharged from behavioral health, child welfare, and juvenile justice systems. This report by A Way Home Washington underscores the importance of making sure SB 6560 is fully leveraged and realized – not just on the west side of our state but all across Washington.

The next critical challenge for our policymakers is to reform our behavioral health systems, so they provide the support and stability youth and young adults need. When a young person is willing to face a crystal meth or opioid addiction, or face the daunting reality of having a major mental illness, we need to honor their courage and support them in finding their best path forward.

Jim Theofelis is executive director of A Way Home Washington, a statewide movement to prevent and end youth and young adult homelessness.