Ryan’s House for Youth is part of a homeless advocacy effort to draft legislation potentially making it easier for households to offer sanctuary to unaccompanied homeless youth.
Ryan’s House runs a host family program for unaccompanied youth as well as a drop-in center where homeless young people on Whidbey can receive food and clothing, take a rest, or receive help with tasks such as obtaining a state I.D. card.
A policy change issued by the Department of Health Services in February has put a halt to host family placements for youth under the age of 18, creating a lengthy waiting list of homeless young people awaiting the chance to participate in the program. The change has also forced many who had been residing in such host households to leave.
The new policy requires host families to be licensed to host youths age 18 and younger. Host family programs were incorporated as part of the state’s child placement agency, which means host families must be approved essentially as foster families — a process that often takes about two years to complete.
These host-foster family hybrids thus need to meet the same criteria as foster families in terms of matters such as square footage of the home and septic system capacities. They will not be reimbursed for the children’s care as standard foster families are, and are required to pay for the application process out of pocket.
As with host families for foreign exchange students, licenses were not previously required for host families for homeless youth.
However, several protective measures have been in place. Each household member in a prospective host family undergoes a background check; the home is inspected for safety; and students and potential host families meet in a public place before the students visit the home.
The legislation that Ryan’s House founder and executive director Lori Cavender and others are seeking would remove the licensing requirements for homeless youth host families, offering them an exemption.
Aside from home inspections and background checks, host family facilitators would be required to continue to ensure that case management and insurance were provided through the organization, and that a legal guardian or individual with power of attorney signed off on the youth’s participation in the program, all of which Cavender said Ryan’s House has done since the beginning.
The legislation also aims to make it easier for small communities that lack funds to build and maintain a shelter, and that don’t have access to youth facilities provided by the Office of Homeless Youth Prevention and Protection Programs, to establish non-profit host family programs in order to serve homeless or at-risk youth.
“If we can get this passed in January, this will be a huge blessing for students that do not have or could not otherwise get housing,” said Cavender.
None of the children served by Ryan’s House receive state assistance, she said.
To be entered into the foster care system through DSHS, children must have visible and fresh signs of abuse, Cavender explained. These include the child sustaining cuts or bruises, or the child being removed from the home through Child Protective Services due to similar trauma or neglect.
DSHS officials recognize the gray area in which these unaccompanied homeless youth lie, and have been helpful in preparing the legislation, Cavender said.
“We wondered how it could possibly be that we couldn’t serve these kids, and they weren’t serving these kids either,” Cavender said.
“That’s why we’re all working together to get this done. We don’t fit. Our kids are not a part of the state program, so why would we become a state agency?”
After the restrictions were set in place in February, one Ryan’s House teen was forced to leave his host family home. He left the state, Cavender said, and had planned to stay with relatives he had never met. She hasn’t been able to contact him since.
Vivian Rogers-Decker, homeless liaison for the Oak Harbor School District, said that she and Cavender often have mutual youth in their care. She noted that the host family system is a relatively new concept in the field of serving unaccompanied youth.
“It was a duckbilled platypus in the concept of shelter for youth,” she said.
Rogers-Decker said she believes the numerous parameters that need to be met in order to become a foster family would greatly restrict the number of households willing to become host homes for the homeless.
“It would become a real barrier for people signing up to take these kids in,” she said.
Rogers-Decker added that, even if they should they qualify, students often don’t want to go into the foster care system for several reasons, including the potential financial burden on their families — the child’s parents are required to pay the state, which then reimburses the foster family — and the possibility of severing ties with their parents entirely.
“I really hope this legislation passes,” Rogers-Decker said. “The host home model is much more user-friendly for our youth.”
There are approximately 100 unaccompanied homeless youth on Whidbey, in Cavender’s estimation.
Along with the nine youth waiting for host family placement, three who are over the age of 18 have remained with their host families.Two of those three young people were legally adopted by their host families. Seven others who had been in host homes graduated from high school in the spring.
Cavender noted that a couple of Washington state senators have expressed interest in pushing the legislation forward, though none have yet given official confirmation.