Where Do We Go? - The Street-to-Prison Pipeline Targeting Washington Youth.
You've been told to move your tent by the city, and now police are outside demanding you pack your things and move somewhere. But in an era of criminalization of homelessness, where can you go? The answer for many King County youth : Prison.
Many of us are well aware of the school-to-prison pipeline targeting Washington youth. Of the 1929 reported juvenile arrests made in 2017, less than a quarter were for violent crime. A majority, as we can see from Washington Statistical Analysis Center are for nonviolent crime such as drug use and possession, truancy, and 'mischief'. So when it comes to the criminalization of youth experiencing homelessness, we have to ask ourselves... Why? If these youth are in fact a population largely made up of nonviolent, non-offending Washington residents why are they being treated as though they are violent criminals? The truth is both simple, and horrifyingly complex, and comes back to one root cause : Lack of services.
When youth, specifically disenfranchised youth of color with a background of trauma, become homeless they are in a race against time. Some statistics say that within 48 hours of entering homelessness youth may already begin experiencing additional trauma related to homelessness - sexual exploitation, violence, and targeting by law enforcement. No matter the youth, we know that it is critical they reenter a stable, housed environment as quickly as possible. Seems like an easy fix, right? Just put them in a shelter, transitional living program, or low-income house. There, problem solved. Except, as we have seen demonstrated through past rapid rehousing programs, youth who do not receive adequate case management and behavioral healthcare are more likely to reenter homelessness than they are to succeed while housed. To properly serve youth in need, we require both 2184 safe, accessible beds, and the staff to support youth once they are in them. Great, so we open more shelters, more transitional housing, and hire more case managers and provide these youth the services they need. There, fixed. And now we come to the real root of the problem. Funding.
Here at Nexus Youth and Families, we are constantly working to secure funding for our various programs and services, which have an annual budget of over 6 million dollars. When we lose some of that funding, whether due to contractual changes or refocusing of State and Federal interests, we feel the effects immediately, and so do our clients. In 2017 we saw a cut in funding which reduced our capacity for under 18 services from ten beds for a full year to less than one bed. That means there were 9 youth under the age of 18 who suffered as a direct result of lack of services. Those 9 youth are statistically more likely to go on to develop mental illness, experience violence, and be incarcerated than youth just like them who found shelter. So our youth ask : Where do we go? When services are cut or underfunded, shelters are overcrowded and understaffed, and infrastructure developing too slow to meet the needs of the community where do we send our homeless youth? For now, the answer is more often than not to jail, or some similar involuntary institutional center. This in turn validates statistics painting homeless youth as violent, drug-abusing, mentally ill menaces, which in turn validates further funding cuts to services and funding boosts to incarceration efforts. What we end up with is a vicious cycle of underfunding, unsheltered youth, and unwarranted arrests. Youth get caught up in the system and then lost in the shuffle, set up to become adults conditioned to incarceration and chronic homelessness. To end this cycle, we have to look inward at our own feelings towards these youth. Are these people we are comfortable abandoning to the streets-to-prison pipleline, or are these young, vulnerable human beings deserving of our help? It would be easy to write them off, and allow the legal system to quickly and quietly move the problem from the street to the jail cell, and in many places that is already happening. But imagine for a moment that youth being caught up in a sweep is your child, your niece or nephew, your student, or a peer at school. We have a duty to these young people and children to give them a fighting chance at success and happiness, and that starts by combating the system which seeks to sweep them under the rug. If you would like to help end the streets-to-prison pipleline, there are a few ways you can help.
Write your local politicians. Let them know that the high rates of youth arrest and incarceration are directly linked to rates of chronic homelessness and housing instability. Push for political reform which focuses on rehabilitation versus incarceration of nonviolent youth, especially youth of color.
Volunteer with, donate to, and promote local shelters, organizations, and charities supporting homeless youth. Many youth are unaware of the services at their disposal, and need your help to find them. Similarly, donating your hard-earned time and money to an organization you support is one of the most powerful ways to ensure youth success. Many organizations are underfunded and understaffed, and any extra hands are welcome.
Arrange a tent, clothing, or hygiene supply drive benefiting homeless youth. During sweeps, many youth have their possessions claimed by law enforcement and disposed of, leaving them with next to nothing to survive. By providing tents, bath and body products, food, clothing, and other necessities you are showing vulnerable youth that you care and want to see them succeed. Assembling care packs with information on local services can be a great, easy way to support youth in need,
We are so grateful you have taken the time to learn a little more about the challenges faced by homeless youth in our community. If you would like to make a tax-deductible contribution to support Nexus Youth and Families programming today, click here. Together, we can make Washington a safer, more supportive home for vulnerable youth.