Children on the street slip through the cracks; state has misplaced priorities

YOU have to look closely to see the homeless kids scattered like fallen leaves across theREGION. They often don’t want to be seen.

The lucky ones are tucked into shelters or transitional housing, or are sleeping on the couches of a friend or maybe a teacher’s, and waking up inTIME for a warm breakfast at school.

But many are scratching to survive in tent camps from Auburn to Everett. Homeless kids regularly sleep under Interstate 5 near Eastlake Avenue, in the shadow ofCONDO towers and high-tech offices. King County has a sizable youth-shelter system, yet turned away at least six kids a night last winter.

It’s tough to nail down how many there are. The state’s annual Point inTIME count tallied more than 4,000 children and young adults as homeless at any given moment, either in families or alone. King County counted more than 800 “unaccompanied” youths — meaning no parent in sight. But bothNUMBERS are likely too low because homeless kids develop the survival skill of becoming virtually invisible.

Life on the streets vastly raises the odds that awful things will happen to these kids. Just 40 percent of homeless boys graduate high school, and they have double the normal rate of suspension. Nearly half of kids in homeless shelters have mental illnesses.

One other predictable outcome: Homeless kids are easy prey for King County’s sex-trafficking networks. More than a quarter of youths on the street say they’ve traded sex for food or shelter.

By some measures, the homeless problem is getting worse, despite concerted efforts of King County youth-focused philanthropies, such as the Raikes Foundation, and advocates, including Washington’s first lady Trudi Inslee.

The raw numbers tell a story: A count of homeless students in Washington schools spiked by a third since the depth of the Great Recession. An estimated 4,600 of those students were unaccompanied. Imagine trying to do your math homework while sleeping in an emergency shelter.

This should be Washington’s year to do better. The Legislature created a new statewide office focused on homeless youth. Its first task is finding “system gaps” and resource holes that let thousands of children slip through the cracks into homelessness.

There are plenty of gaps and bureaucratic dysfunctions. The state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) focuses its stretched resources on younger kids, leaving teens as the neglected children of the child-welfare system. Outdated runaway and truancy laws cause Washington to lead the nation in jailing kids for noncriminal offenses and toFUND detention over treatment. And the state has a leadership vacuum in responding to youth homelessness and runaways, with programs spread across three agencies that have very different missions.