Article: Housing vouchers could help homeless teens grow, thrive (TNT)

By on March 17, 2011. Posted in . Tagged as , , , .

Tacoma News Tribune article about the challenges of serving homeless youth in Pierce County. Thanks for addressing this, Kit.

Housing vouchers could help homeless teens grow, thrive

If you look at one set of federal numbers, there are five homeless teens in Tacoma. If you look at another, there are 250.

But if you listen to the people trying to help them, there are hundreds more throughout Pierce County, and most have little hope of getting into decent, stable homes, or growing into decent, stable adults.

Federal counts, which determine where federal money goes, don’t fit the problem. They don’t even fit each other.

Susan Paredes is Tacoma schools’ liaison with the federal program for homeless kids in school. She can name 250 high school students who don’t have homes. They all go to Tacoma schools, and they all meet federal standards for defining a homeless student. Many are couch surfing – sleeping at the homes of friends or relatives until their welcome wears out.

By contrast, federal Department of Housing and Urban Development rules say that if they were crashing with friends on Jan. 27, the night of the annual homeless count, they had a roof and aren’t homeless. Last year, that tally found five kids.

This kind of undercounting sinks efforts to get money to help these young people.

Now experts in social work and housing are teaming up to fix the long-term hole in services for vulnerable youth. They’re brainstorming ways to get these kids into safe homes with counseling, health care, education and training in life skills.

These aren’t easy kids. Some have run away from home. More have been kicked out, fled for their own safety or were abandoned.

“One mother left one of her daughters, left the state, then came back and left the other daughter,” said Cheryl Jones, executive director of Tacoma’s Allen Renaissance.

“I’ve heard many stories of 12-year-olds who are picked up, then leave when they hear they have to be reported to their parents,” said Diane Powers, planner for Pierce County’s mental health and homeless programs. “They say, ‘I’m going back to the camp.’ Many of them are involved in prostitution.”

And many of them, Jones said, will end up at the state’s sexual offender unit for youths with a felony on their juvenile record.

“What our kids are going through is horrific,” she said.

She uses “our kids” in the broad sense, to cover young people who can’t live with their own families and depend on the rest of us to help them toward a decent future.

Even the most basic emergency shelters are expensive, said Troy Christensen of Pierce County Human Services.

“It requires highly trained staff and notification of families,” he said.

But the investment helps cut the risk that young people will harm themselves, have sex or do something else that might leave the provider liable. Expensive programs are powerful deterrents to agencies that are barely getting by and don’t have enough funds targeted at homeless teens.

Work around that, suggested Michael Mirra, executive director of Tacoma Housing Authority. Take money from general funds and use it to get teens settled and aimed at independence.

Tacoma Housing Authority owns houses, and it distributes vouchers that can be used to pay for housing.

“We have homes with up to six bedrooms. We could make a larger single-family home available as a congregate facility that we would not run,” he said.

The young residents could use housing vouchers to pay their rent, and an agency with a good track record could provide the monitoring, counseling and life-skills training in a group-home setting.

Paredes said some homeless students stay in school, but they are minors, entirely on their own and unable to find housing.

The housing authority can help, Mirra said. “If we could support them with housing vouchers, we would count that as very good use of housing dollars.”

This kind of new thinking about solving old problems with existing funds is welcome. It’s opening the possibility of going beyond shelter to help damaged young people grow into productive community members.

These are kids who would love the chance to someday become taxpayers.

Kathleen Merryman: 253-597-8677

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