When we think about what it will take to end youth and young adult homelessness in our community, some might think about building more affordable homes or helping people receive services and get into shelter. But those actions are only half of what’s needed — the other half is before someone ever enters the homelessness system in the first place. It is called prevention, and it never looks the same way twice.
Every day, I work with young people across Walla Walla County as part of our community’s effort to end youth homelessness. This means creating a “yes to yes” system — when a young person says, “Yes, I’m ready to seek help,” my colleagues and I will be there to say “yes” back and get them the support they need.
Since last August, my team and I at Blue Mountain Action Council have been on the front lines to distribute money from the Centralized Diversion Fund, an innovative new pilot program coordinated by A Way Home Washington. AWHWA is our state’s campaign to end youth homelessness, co-chaired by First Lady Trudi Inslee and strongly supported by former State Senator Maureen Walsh.
The CDF is a flexible pool of money that I can draw upon after consulting with a young person at risk of experiencing homelessness or who needs help to exit the homelessness system. It can be used for anything that will result in someone staying housed or finding new housing, and my colleagues and I are encouraged to be as creative as possible. It was generously funded by the Schultz Family Foundation and the State Office of Homeless Youth.
One example from over the past year involved two young people who were without a place to live after their parent was evicted and moved into a new situation where the teenagers weren’t welcome. One of the young people’s teachers was willing to take them in and provide them a home, but needed financial help. I accessed the CDF to help pay part of the teacher’s living costs, including the increase in utilities and food bills. With our help, the teacher was able to move both young people into their home and keep them out of homelessness.
In another recent example, a work-related injury led to lost income, and a young person needed a one-time payment from the CDF to help her make rent, avoid eviction and get to her next paycheck. Stories like this happen every week, and it means so much to me when we’re able to keep a young person housed.
This work is personal for me — when I was younger, I had my own experiences with housing instability and homelessness. Now I am honored to give back by building connection and trust with youth and young adults who are going through difficult times just like I did. As a provider, I can really lean in and create a space for the young person to share with me who they are and where they want to be. A key part of our work, and the work of AWHWA, is to incorporate diversity and equity into everything we do — and that means including meaningful input from people who have lived experience of youth homelessness. Unsurprisingly, the people who can empathize best with a young person in need are those who have been there themselves and come from a place of understanding.
From May 20 to June 20, Walla Walla and three other communities across the state participated in “30 Diversions in 30 Days,” where AWHWA challenged us to divert 30 young people over a month-long period from entering the homelessness system, using the CDF and innovative casework. I was beyond proud to help Walla Walla meet this goal, and I was fortunate enough to personally divert 19 people over those 30 days.
Diversion is such a powerful tool beyond monetary measure — it is all about giving someone the boost they need to remove their personal barrier to being stably housed. Many young people already have nearly everything they need — but with the CDF, the last piece can fall into place, whether it’s paying for a needed car repair, helping a friend or family member fix up a living space or paying for transportation to get them back to loved ones, among many other creative solutions.
Walla Walla proves that homelessness, especially youth homelessness, isn’t only a problem in big urban cities — it’s also happening right here. Like many other communities, we are experiencing a housing shortage and lack of subsidized housing options. And if it can happen here, it can happen anywhere.
To solve youth homelessness in our region, it will take everyone coming together, and it will take people having compassion for the difficult situations that young people can find themselves in. They want to stay housed, they want to go to work and school, they want to be a part of our community like anyone else — we just need to give them a chance.