SENATE HUMAN SERVICES WORK SESSION |JUNE 10, 2024

To watch Jim Theofelis’s testimony please CLICK HERE

Good Morning Madame Chair and members of the committee.

My name is Jim Theofelis and I am the founding executive director of NorthStar Advocates with a mission to prevent and end youth and young adult homelessness by supporting young people, strengthening families and communities, and holding the systems designed to serve them accountable.

Thank you Madame Chair for hosting this important session on likely the most vulnerable  subset of young people in our community.  Namely, those adolescents, teenagers-forced to survive on their own.

I do want to share that I began my career working on the streets of Seattle, in emergency shelters and later as the clinical director of several organizations including YouthCare and the director of the mental health clinic inside King County Juvenile Detention facility. In fact my first piece of advocacy was when I wrote the HOPE Act-the Homeless Youth Prevention, Protection and Education Act, in response to the Becca Bill. The HOPE Act gave us HOPE beds and a strategy for older adolescents experiencing unaccompanied homelessness a safe place to live that was focused on helping them prepare for adulthood.

Sadly, the issue that some adolescents are forced to navigate years of their lives without the benefit of an engaged, competent, loving family is not new. They find no solace in the child welfare system but seem to always have space in the juvenile rehabilitation system although many do experience stops in the foster care and/or juvenile rehabilitation systems they typically end up living a traumatic, nomadic life as an unaccompanied homeless youth. No surprise to anyone many of these young people are youth of color and/identify as Queer.

Quite often there are familiar characteristics within the parental hierarchy that includes addiction and/or mental illness that is devasting to the children in the family. Both addiction and mental illness consume the parent’s capacity and often interest in looking outside of themselves in order to provide for their family. This alone is not a reason to remove children, but it is a call for support, treatment, kinship and community engagement.

For many young people they have come to a point that they no longer can tolerate hiding  their true identity which is in alignment with the developmental stage of adolescence and the developmental task of identify development. For those young people who identify as gay, lesbian, non-binary or any gender or sexual identify that is in conflict with what their family, church, community will accept-this is foundational trauma and conflict. Especially when it is made clear that they are not welcome in the family home. I will add that my experience is these young people are often the most unprepared and vulnerable when surviving on the streets given they were often bonded and part of a family structure that may not have included overt abuse or neglect.

In fact I will share that for many years I have rejected the term “runaway” as it has a pejorative overlay that inherently blames the young person when nearly all of the young people I have worked with over the years were actually “running to” and typically they were “running to safety”. A safe environment free of abuse, safe relationships that accept to they are.

As more evidence this is a complex subject. I do want to make sure this discussion makes space for the parents, grandparents, siblings who have been present to their loved one as he or she  goes through a very challenging adolescence. These are parents who have tried to navigate a complex system with little success and a great deal of frustration.

 In fact my private practice is full of these families who have often come to me as a result of refusing to pick their child up from the emergency room or psychiatric hospital, or juvenile detention facility. These are families that have been asking for help for many years, gone through multiple therapists, schools sometimes the court systems trying to find something to help stabilize their teenager. These are young people that may have an emerging mental illness or addiction of their own.  Some have complex neurological disorders that may or may not be diagnosed. Some have experienced serious trauma sometimes unbeknown to one or both parents.

But quite frankly I’m not sure I see this young person as “unaccompanied” given there are families and resources that follow the young person differently than the fifteen or sixteen year old young person that is shelter hopping, couch surfing, getting caught up being trafficked or commercially sexual exploitation. Unaccompanied and alone in plain sight.

I would like to use the remaining of my time to speak to the need across all of these situations for upstream prevention strategy across our state.  The Office of Homeless Youth has a strong prevention plan and we need to support and fund that starting with providing families with early support.

I have received calls for years and years from parents, often grandparents who are raising their grandchildren saying they have been asking for support with their young adolescent for years-and now at age 15 or 16 once they have been expelled from school, arrested or worse, they are being offered help. But they asked for and knew they needed help years ago.

I and others would like to see a prevention strategy that provides support, counseling, enrichment support and quite frankly concrete goods and services to families before their child is running away, getting involved with street or gang behavior and certainly before they are a “candidate” for foster care.

I believe this statewide program would best be situated in the Office of Homeless Youth that would contract with community based organizations to provide the services that are culturally and developmentally responsive to the needs of that family. Certainly, DCYF should take advantage of the federal Family First Prevention Services Act but I hope we go further upstream-again before a child is considered a “candidate for foster care”.

Finally, (I heard once when giving a long talk at some point use the word “Finally” if for no other reason to give the audience hope).

Finally and back to the unaccompanied youth who for whatever reason is not able to go home, not able to enter or interested in the foster care system we must find entry points for them to receive safe housing, healthy connections, school involvement-options that sends the message that the community wants them rather than pushing them to the streets and the predators that await.

We have learned a great deal here in WA which is part of the reason we are the envy of the nation:

Elevating and centering the voice of those with lived experience is essential

Having an office of homeless youth has proven remarkable and keeping it independent of the DCYF has proven instrumentalTurns out providing young people with flexible funding or direct cash support helps them be safer-thank you to Kim and the OHY Team for leading this work with a pilot

Taking a systems approach that empowers local communities works!

Telehealth is amazing in terms of access, comfort, something we learned a great deal of during Covid, and thanks to 6560 and 1905 that put some funding behind that.

We have learned a lot about the value of relationships-kinship family members, mentors-coaches, teachers etc. many who would willing provide support and maybe a home but need and deserve financial assistance and ongoing services.  Quite frankly options that the young person identifies as feeling safe and willing to stay.  As the founder of The Mockingbird Society and originator of the Mockingbird Family which is being replicated in several states and countries is demonstrating remarkable success by surrounding young people with an intentional community based in healthy relationships focused on the health and safety of the children and adolescents in the community I often say: Policies don’t change lives, programs don’t change lives-relationships change lives and the policies and programs should foster an environment for healthy relationships to thrive.

James Baldwin said it best: “For these are all our children and we will profit by or pay for whatever they become.”

Or as we say here in the great state of Washington YES TO YES!  When young people say Yes I want support their local community has the resources and commitment to say in return: “Yes, come inside!”

Thank you again Madame Chair for this time and I look forward to future work on this critical set issues.

 

Photo Credit: A Way Home Washington

Sarah Spier
Author: Sarah Spier