Legislative bills aim to help place homeless teenagers

Ryan’s House for Youth this week presented two bills to state lawmakers that could potentially make it easier for homeless kids and teens in Washington to receive care through host family programs.

Ryan’s House is one of four western Washington homeless youth advocacy organizations, including Olivecrest’s Safe Families program in Bellevue, H.O.S.T. of Mason County and Shared Housing Solutions in Tacoma, coordinating to present the bills in Olympia.

Each runs a host family program for unaccompanied youth, which allows vetted volunteers to offer sanctuary to homeless young people who are not eligible for foster care.

Safe Families extends their program to children under the age of 12, offering an alternative solution for parents looking for a safe, temporary living space for children while they are unable to care for them. Ryan’s House serves teens and young adults exclusively.

Each organization’s host home program model is based upon that established by Avenues in Minnesota, and each was affected by an abrupt policy change issued by the Department of Social and Health Services in February 2015.

The new rule requires host families to obtain licenses similar to those required for foster care providers, a process that often takes about two years to complete.

The new policy also requires the host-foster family hybrids to meet the same criteria as foster families in terms of square footage, septic system capacities and the like, all of which can rack up a hefty sum for homeowners looking to volunteer. Host families, however, do not receive reimbursement for expenses as foster families do.

In addition, host family organizations are required to ensure case management and insurance are provided through the organization, and that a legal guardian or power of attorney approve the youth’s placement. But these are practices Executive Director Lori Cavender said Ryan’s House and fellow host family facilitators have done since day one.

Following the change, Ryan’s House for Youth was forced to cease placement of youth in host homes, and to eject one teen who had been living with a host family.

As Cavender and others prepared last week to present a bill to the House of Representatives on Friday, she said the lengthy list of young people awaiting host family placement continues to grow.

Through the legislation, Cavender and fellow advocates are seeking an exemption for host families similar to that in place for the hosts of foreign exchange students.

The legislation states that organizations would continue to practice the various necessities such as case management and background checks, and that the state’s newly established Office of Homeless Youth Prevention and Protection Programs must report to the governor and legislature the best practices and recommendations for such programs by July 1, 2017.

One bill made its way to the Senate floor on Jan. 14, while the House heard the second on Friday.

Aside from a slight language difference, the bills are identical.

Cavender said all but one senator, whom she declined to name, supported the bill last week.

The senator expressed concern about oversight, asking who would oversee the various organizations to ensure their compliance with regulations and suggesting the Department of Social and Health Services be responsible for the task, which would require several thousand dollars annually.

While it is a valid concern, Cavender said the intent of the bill(s) is to receive an exemption, not funding, and noted that she is weary of having money associated with the bill at all.

Patrick Dowd, JD, director of the Office of the Family and Children Ombuds, also requested three additions to the bill. His requests are that a renewal process be conducted every three years for host home residents, including redoing background checks; a list be compiled of what precludes an individual if their background check is not clear, i.e. if they have a misdemeanor charge from several years prior, but no other convictions; and that host home providers be listed in the mandatory reporting RCW.

State Rep Norma Smith, R-Clinton, along with Sen. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, and Rep. Ruth Kagi, D-Seattle, expressed strong support for the bill. Smith said Thursday evening that the bill has “strong bipartisan support.”

Smith explained that she believes the exemption is necessary because the youth in question comprise a unique population which requires unique attention.

“We constantly must be looking at ways to help our children that, for whatever reason, are at these crisis points in their lives,” she said in a telephone interview Thursday evening.

“When we invest in them … we can build into that young person’s life the potential in their lives to look forward with optimism and hope.”

This potential extends to families as well as communities, Smith said.

Cavender said she agrees, explaining that, because these youth are not eligible for Department of Social and Health services, “if we aren’t allowed to serve them, there is no one to serve them.”

“I’m really hopeful we can resolve this issue,” Smith said.