MY VIEW • Services that benefit at-risk youth provide crucial care

The murder of Jessica Kate Williams, a 22-year-old who occasionally lived on the streets of Portland, has sent shock waves through our community, as well it should. It has focused a harsh light on our city's homeless youth problem. Questions are being asked, most importantly: How can we stop this from happening again?

Portland has built a very good safety net of programs for homeless kids. Through the downtown homeless youth system, which includes New Avenues for Youth, Outside In and Janus Youth Programs, we have created transitional housing facilities, shelters, a nationally acclaimed school and job training programs, among many other services. More than 1,000 homeless youth make use of these services annually, and the outcomes have been good. They are leaving the streets.

But more needs to, and can, be done.

• First, we need to recognize that this is a local problem. More than 75 percent of the youth we serve at New Avenues come from the Portland-Vancouver metro area. Most of the rest didn't travel too much farther and are from other parts of Oregon and southern Washington state.

These are our kids, and they do not make a conscious choice to live on the streets. Forty-five percent of the kids we see report sexual and physical abuse at home, including sexual assault. Home is often less safe than the streets.

• Second, we need to better understand how these kids end up on the streets. We stand on the metaphorical riverbank grabbing them as best we can before they drown. We must also assume the responsibility to find out who is letting them slip into the river in the first place.

It may come as a surprise that nearly half of the street kids served by local homeless youth programs have current or very recent involvement in child protective care or the foster care system. The homeless youth system is for homeless kids, not those who should receive help in other systems of care.

• Third, more efforts are needed to proactively reach out to homeless kids. We can't expect them all to have the courage and strength to walk through our doors on their own. Highly trained, experienced professionals are needed on the streets 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Working in close partnership with the police, we must implement a carefully crafted, professionally designed outreach initiative that helps kids know where to go for assistance, as well as the consequences of continued life on the streets. There are rules and ordinances to be followed, and there are people willing to help. That message must be clear and continually reinforced.

While the case of Williams is highly unusual, the fact that there are hundreds of youth living on the streets of Portland is not. We have proved that by enticing kids off the streets, setting high expectations and providing opportunities to heal and grow, three out of four young people gain long-term independence. Our next step is to convince people this is a community issue that extends beyond the streets. And once it hits there, we've got to be there a lot sooner with a life preserver.

Ken Cowdery is the executive director of New Avenues for Youth; he has worked with homeless and at-risk youth for 28 years. He lives in Southwest Portland.

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