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Homelessness Redefined in Washington State – Why Does it Matter?


80,000 babies, toddlers, children, and youth touch homelessness each year in Washington.

A sold-out Seahawks game seats 72,000 people – so 80,000 is a lot of children and youth experiencing homelessness – more than a packed stadium.

But do you know the glitch?

Not all 80,000 qualify for services that could help because there isn’t a single definition of the word “homelessness” in use in Washington state. There are several. And they conflict with each other. It would be like different groups of people having different definitions of “fire” and then 911 operators everywhere would be left confused, not knowing which definition to use – while the clock is ticking on the crisis!

Wellspring testified before the Washington Legislature – both House and Senate – in 2020 and 2021. Our team did so on behalf of 80,000 children and youth who are harmed by an unfortunate administrative error: inconsistent definitions. Wellspring used its voice, made the case, and stuck with it through the thick and thin of repeated hearings in order to change statewide policy on the very definition of the word “homelessness.” In particular, we are grateful to Rep. Alicia Rule, Rep. Kirsten Harris-Talley, Rep. Tana Senn, Sen. Jeannie Darnielle, Sen. Claire Wilson, and Sen. Joe Nguyen for helping advocate for an updated definition.

Washington’s public schools have a single, consistent definition of homelessness. It works great. Wellspring believes in this definition and uses it daily. But when schools refer a student for assistance, they often don’t qualify for services because contracts from the state, county, or city define homelessness differently than the schools do.

As ridiculous as it may sound, social workers are often required to tell families that they must first stay outdoors before the social service system is permitted to help them. Of course, most parents go to extreme lengths to keep their children from having to sleep under a bridge. So they don’t. And as a result, they don’t get help.

On April 16, 2021, Governor Inslee signed into law the very bill Wellspring has been advocating for (SHB 1221) for two years. Now Washington can use a single, appropriate definition of homelessness. There is still more work to do at the county and city levels to achieve the greatest alignment, but the State of Washington made a giant leap forward this year.

With the help of Wellspring donors, advocates, staff, and allies, we will continue to serve and advocate for children and youth – so that they can break the cycle of family homelessness for good.

For more on this issue, read our co-authored Opinion piece featured in the Seattle Times, May 9.

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