March 12, 2015
Painting a More Accurate Picture of Youth Homelessness in King County

Before you can solve a problem, you need to understand it. You need to know its full scope, its causes, its exacerbating factors, and its consequences. This a fundamental reality of social change, but how do you do this for a complex problem that, by its very nature, is hidden from society? That’s the challenge we face each day with youth homelessness as the young people we seek to help often distrust the very systems and individuals in place to support them. And who can blame them after the abuse, neglect and fear most have encountered?

That’s why in 2010 forward-looking service providers with support from United Way of King County started Count Us In – an annual point-in-time count specifically designed to address the unique challenges of identifying the scope of youth homelessness. What began as a modest effort by a handful of providers and partners has quickly grown into one of the largest youth-specific point-in-time counts in the country. This year, 71 locations across King County helped administer the survey on January 22 -- a 54 percent increase in locations from 2014. This survey is coupled with an increasingly sophisticated analysis of data from the county’s Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) to provide a glimpse into the state of youth homelessness in King County.

The results from this year’s count are equal-parts frustrating and encouraging. On one hand, the total number of homeless or unstably housed youth increased by six percent from last year to 824, including 133 young people without any shelter. Even one homeless young person is too many, let alone 824. On the other hand, we’re encouraged that this number has remained relatively stable the past three years (776 in 2013 and 779 in 2014) even as we’ve significantly expanded the scope and sophistication of the count. If anything, these results tell us that youth homelessness is a problem within our community’s reach to address if we continue to work together.

But continued progress and understanding of this issue requires a more nuanced view than even the best point-in-time count can offer. Our goal as a community is to make youth homelessness rare and, for those who do experience it, a brief and one-time occurrence. Measuring success, then, requires other data to gauge the efficiency and effectiveness of our crisis response system. It also requires close collaboration with schools, the child welfare system, and the juvenile justice system to understand how we can identify youth at risk of experiencing homelessness and prevent it from occurring in the first place. These relatively-quantitative efforts must also be coupled with the more qualitative approach of engaging homeless young people themselves to hear how the system has (or hasn’t) worked for them.

Point being, youth homelessness isn’t a one-dimensional problem and it can’t be measured by a single number. We’re getting better in King County about identifying and updating these measures, and I’m proud that our community is taking an informed, data-driven approach to guide our work and assess our progress. This will not only help deliver better outcomes for youth, it will also ensure that we’re responsible stewards of the public and private dollars invested in this important issue.