Falling Through the Gaps: How a Stay in Detention Can Lead to Youth Homelessness

"Jimmy, 15, was the subject of two dependency proceedings as a child...and routinely seeks arrest to get off the streets....He typically leaves on his own, returns to the streets, then turns himself in again when he feels he needs help."

Washington State provides its youth a right to health care, to an education, to food assistance, and to be protected from exploitative working conditions. But for another basic need – a roof over one’s head – there is no clear right. Instead, the care and custody of homeless youth is subject to a patchwork of local and state agency resources and various legal duties, resulting in gaps in responsibilities and services. Often, youth fall through these gaps into homelessness. A prominent gap occurs when a young person exits a county detention center (i.e., juvenile jails) and there is no parent or other adult able or willing to pick them up.            

In 2015, the Washington legislature passed the Homeless Youth Prevention and Protection Act, declaring the goal that “every homeless youth discharged from a public system of care in our state will not be discharged into homelessness.”  The Children & Youth Project at Columbia Legal Services has been exploring the relationship between discharge from county detention facilities and youth homelessness in Washington State. The report, "Falling Through the Gaps: How a Stay in Detention Can Lead to Youth Homelessness" looks at the ways that youth initially come into detention, and what happens to youth who have no stable place to go after a stay in a detention center.  By examining the duties that the various agencies have for these youth before, during, and after release from detention, we can identify systemic gaps that result in homelessness. These gaps are potential targets for system reform.

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