Homeless Teens: A hidden problem, a community solution | Editorial

Note: San Juan Islander Necia Quast has prepared a report on the issue and about the proposed Home Program solution. Those who would like a copy of the full report, to request a presentation, or to learn how to help, please email collquas@netscape.net.

Most Islanders don’t know many teens struggle to be stably housed in San Juan County. A small number shelter in vehicles or tents, but many couch surf, staying with friends or family members on sufferance, often moving from place to place. Some depend on an exploitative relationship for a place to stay. There are about 40-45 children ages 12-18 in San Juan County without a stable, safe place to live.

Their family may be homeless. More often the child is separated from their parents due to conflict with household members. Often substance abuse or mental health issues are a factor. Several organizations provide services to unstably housed teens and often work together to help, but there is no shelter, foster care, transitional housing, crisis center, or other programs that offer temporary or medium-term safe housing for unhomed teens. Most have a provisional place to sleep and informal help from community members, but often neither the young person nor the household they are staying at are getting the services they need to provide a stable, workable situation.

An emerging solution for rural areas without shelter for teens is Host Home Programs. Building on the fact that many such teens find refuge with other community members, the programs seek to create a safe, stable alternate home by providing support and structure for the child and host household. This is a local solution that works with existing efforts to help teens not living in their own homes. Such a program would recruit host homes, match teens with a place to stay, and provide host households with training, crisis support, respite care, and perhaps financial or material aid.

In its 2019-2024 Five-Year Homelessness Plan the County set a goal of creating a host home program in San Juan County by the end of 2024. The prospects are good, given the local organizations committed to helping these teens and our community’s history of taking care of our own. The County government will need to take the lead to call together a working group that brings all the parties to the table, including the Resource Centers on each island, to make a plan to launch a host home program. Then community members will need to step up to recruit and support volunteer hosts and provide case management to the teens. A team approach in which community support would include not just households that host a teen, but others who volunteer to support a host family by offering practical help, moral support, backup or respite care, and/or financial support or services to help cover costs of hosting a teen. Community groups could pledge an ongoing commitment to support elements of the program.