When volunteers affiliated with the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness headed out overnight January 29 for the One Night Count of people who are without shelter, a troubling number of the homeless they took note of were young people.
Last year, 3,772 homeless were counted on the streets during King County’s One Night Count, up more than 20 percent from the previous year. That number climbed to 4,505 in 2016. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that more than a third of the homeless population is 24 or younger.
That population faces challenges on many fronts and confronts barriers to accessing resources. One tool available to them – the “Homeless Youth Handbook” – was developed through a partnership between Starbucks lawyers and legal staff, the Baker & McKenzie law firm and Columbia Legal Services Children and Youth Project.
Aligned with Starbucks Values
Devon Gores, co-leader of the Starbucks Law & Corporate Affairs Department Pro Bono Committee when the project started four years ago, said Baker & McKenzie approached Starbucks about developing the handbook after earlier efforts to launch something similar had stalled. Recognizing that the mission aligned with company values and could involve the entire legal staff, Starbucks got onboard with enthusiasm.
Angela Vigil, Baker & McKenzie’s pro bono executive director, said she and her co-project leader, Dieter Schmitz, a Baker & McKenzie partner in Chicago, were astonished by the level of engagement she encountered when she arrived in Seattle to help launch the effort. Still, the task ahead remained daunting.
“When we started there was nothing there but a blank page,” Vigil recalled.
More than 100 contributors from the three organizations eventually became involved in the project. The essential task was communicating the legal issues and options available to Washington’s homeless youth so that it would be easy to use and intuitive for teens. That meant banning all “legalese” and making sure every sentence was written with the target audience in mind. Eighteen areas of focus were identified, ranging from health care and medical rights to public benefits.
'The same rights whether they're homeless or not'
The Sanctuary Art Center, a Seattle nonprofit art studio serving homeless youth and young adults ages 13-25, was enlisted to create cover art. When the 276-page manuscript was printed, copies were distributed to schools, shelters and other places where homeless youth congregate. The handbook was made accessible online, where it’s updated regularly. It’s also downloadable as a PDF and each page is affixed with a smartphone-scannable code.
Since it was introduced in Washington in 2013, the “Homeless Youth Handbook” has caught on in other states, with Minnesota and Illinois leading the way with customized editions. Work has begun in California on an interactive version.
Vigil emphasized that, while it’s difficult to get a handle on the number of homeless youth, even with efforts like One Night Count, the problem isn’t going away and it’s important for those who find themselves without a roof over their heads to know that they’re entitled to fair treatment.
“The one thing homeless youth need to understand about their rights is they have the same rights whether they’re homeless or not,” said Vigil.