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Originally published Sunday, November 22, 2009 at 4:00 PM

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Guest columnist

Ringing the alarm about a threat to homeless youth

Proposed state budget cuts threaten to eliminate assistance to some of the most vulnerable of Washington's citizens, homeless youth. Guest columnist Melinda Giovengo rings the alarm at a budget plan that will leave more young people on the street and cost everyone more in the long run.

Special to The Times

COST control is heart-rending when it impacts a child.

All our state agencies are making hard choices on where to cut, in light of the economic crisis. Nowhere are they harder than at Children's Administration (CA), a division of the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) that funds services to abused and neglected children and their families "with the goal of achieving safety, permanency and well-being for the children as quickly as possible."

This may be the most humane use of your tax dollars and mine. It certainly makes fiscal sense. Among the quarter-million-plus individuals that CA benefits annually, thousands upon thousands will occasion additional taxpayer expense for years or decades to come — unless we help them now.

So, forced to trim the budget on our behalf, the people in these agencies have my sincere sympathy. Still, I'm ringing the alarm, because it's being proposed that you and I, as citizens, make a very grave mistake.

DSHS proposes to zero out, within weeks and months, two line items that provide the key to helping some of our state's most vulnerable children: homeless youth. Put together, these two lines, supporting street outreach and emergency beds, account for less than 1/4 of 1 percent of the Children's Administration budget.

These are hard times — and there are ways to measure their effects on families. A recent report finds that 1 in 50 children in the United States are homeless. In Seattle alone there are up to 1,000 homeless kids every day. This year, here at YouthCare, our Orion drop-in center is on track for a 50 percent increase in clients, to more than 3,000. The number of times each week we have no bed left to offer is rising.

These kids aren't on the street by choice. Of the kids we give lunch at Orion or can offer a bed, 74 percent are victims of physical and sexual abuse.

Outreach and emergency beds are the "first response" to youth homelessness — yet it is exactly these gateway services that may disappear from our communities under the proposed cuts. As one example only, YouthCare outreach would lose two-thirds of its funding on Jan. 1. On July 1, one-third of the funding for our emergency beds would disappear in turn.

If the cuts go through, organizations statewide will struggle to maintain similar programs at some level. I'm not optimistic. Some won't survive.

Yet statistics tell us that early intervention is everything. Of homeless kids who find help quickly, 75 percent go home, with help to the family where called for. Meanwhile, 50 percent of chronically homeless adults were homeless as adolescents — but 93 percent of homeless youth who access services will not be homeless five years later. We know how to stop the flow.

We can't weigh one child's need over another's, but we can weigh the effect of failing to meet a need. Studies show that a dollar spent today to save a homeless child saves at least four dollars down the road. The true cost of failing to catch and hold these children is immeasurable.

Without services, too many of tonight's homeless youth will plunge into alcohol and substance abuse, crises of mental and physical health, and simple despair. It's not hard to see why. Some will turn to crime to survive. Others will be forced into it, as the child prostitution in this city and beyond attests, to our shame. Some will die.

Let us at least maintain funding for our best shot at saving and redirecting these young lives. As an administrative question, this lies between DSHS and Gov. Chris Gregoire — although it certainly concerns our representatives from the local to the state level. Tell those who act on your behalf that you understand how hard the choices are — but that we must fully fund those two Children's Administration budget lines: the Street Youth Outreach Program, and Hope Centers.

Outreach, and hope. We owe it to ourselves to provide that much.

Melinda Giovengo is executive director of YouthCare.

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