A hidden problem, a community solution | Guest column

A hidden problem, a community solution | Guest column

by Necia Quast

San Juan Island

Most islanders don’t know many teens struggle to be stably housed in San Juan County. A small number take shelter in vehicles or tents, but many couch surf, staying with friends or family members on sufferance, often moving from place to place. Some may depend on an exploitative relationship for a place to stay. There are more than a dozen children ages 13-18 on San Juan Island 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. Some stay to finish high school when their family moves.

A number of organizations provide services to unstably housed teens and often work together to provide help, but there is no shelter; foster care; transitional housing; crisis center; or another program that offers 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 with is 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.

The prospects for a host home program in San Juan County are good, given the local organizations committed to helping these teens and a community with a history of stepping up. To start, a host home program could develop and support volunteer hosts and support teams, and offer case management to the teens. In time, the program might create small group homes. The San Juan Island Family Resource Center has taken some first steps for starting a program on San Juan which could be replicated on other islands. 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; back-up 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. The SJI Family Resource Center has recently set up a fund to support unstably housed youths in the community.

Necia Quast, a community member, has recently completed a report on this issue on San Juan Island. Her report encompasses the proposed home program solution, which has been shared with the county council and local organizations. If you would like a copy of the full report, to request a presentation or to learn how you can help, contact Quast at collquas@netscape.net.