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Study: Youth homelessness often follows mental health, addiction treatment

Will James
A homeless encampment in downtown Olympia.

Hundreds of young people in Washington who seek help for mental health problems or substance abuse end up homeless or near homeless after leaving treatment, according to a study that claims to reveal a lack of planning and coordination by the state.

A Way Home Washington, a nonprofit group working to end youth homelessness, commissioned the study. It examined cases of people ages 12 to 24 who struggled or failed to secure housing after leaving the state's care.

The nonprofit found that most of the young people experienced those challenges after leaving publicly funded, in-patient mental health or addiction treatment. In fact, housing troubles affected people leaving those programs more often than foster care, jail, or the juvenile justice system combined.

"So many of these young people are being discharged into unstable housing, into a shelter environment," said Jim Theofelis, executive director of A Way Home Washington. "We might not be sending them directly to the streets, but we're sending them to the curb." 

The report says nearly 1,200 young people each year are homeless or unstably housed after leaving in-patient behavioral health programs in Washington.

The vast majority — about 85 percent — are young adults ages 18 to 24, revealing a gap in support for that age group, according to the study. Many have lost contact with family due to their mental health or substance-abuse issues, the study says. 

The report calls on the state's behavioral health programs to plan more for a patient's discharge and develop better methods of coordinating with housing agencies. 

"Our No. 1 strategy is to stop public systems — foster care, juvenile justice, and these in-patient programs — from creating young people who are homeless," Theofelis said. 

The report also says there should be more options for young people to undergo treatment at home. 

The study comes as state officials work on a plan to ensure no young person is released from a state system of care into homelessness by the end of 2020. It's a requirement of the state Department of Children, Youth, and Their Families following a bill passed last year by state lawmakers.

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.