At-risk youth: the elephant roaming downtown

Everywhere I go these days, someone wants to talk about downtown Olympia. In the time I’ve lived here, I’ve never seen quite so much energy around this topic. I hope we get the courage to address one of the issues that no one talks about: at-risk youth.

A lot of the downtown conversation focuses on solving the homeless problem. The good news is that we mostly know how to do that, and with enough resources we can do it fairly quickly. But other complaints, such as tagging, vandalism and petty theft is is not about homelessness. The homeless don’t buy spray paint or break windows.

Any group of people committing those crimes is likely to include current and former foster kids.

Six years ago, I decided to become a parent. And after working and volunteering with at-risk youth for most of my life, I chose to become a foster parent. The only trouble with that is that once you raise a foster kid from the point of total vulnerability and desperation to promise for a future, you start to see just how little is being done for other kids like her.

I walk through downtown Olympia most days and I see kids huddled up in groups and I see so much wasted opportunity.

Most weeks I see kids I know from the foster care system hanging out in the middle of the day acting tough. It’s the only thing they know. No one is showing them another way to be – they are kids who want more, who need more, and who deserve more. If you talk to them they’ll tell you that street families are where they find love and acceptance.

We don’t know who is tagging buildings, breaking into cars and causing the general ruckus that we hear so much about – local conversation often implies that homeless adults are responsible for all of the problems downtown. Street youth are candidates as much or more than homeless people are. Some of those kids are homeless too, and some are not – street youth and homeless adults are two very different populations.

Those of us who are raising teenagers know what happens with regular teenage hormone induced anger – just imagine that plus the anger that comes with being neglected, having the lowest standards set for you, and having little hope for the future.

Sixty-four percent of foster youth do not graduate from high school. There are only between 300-400 foster youth in this County at any given time.

You could help one of those kids stay in school.

Perhaps coincidentally I was filling out licensing paperwork today for foster care which asks you to describe how you would react in various situations and what you do to raise foster children – keep guns locked up, allow them religious freedom, do not use abuse in discipline, do not smoke indoors.

Nowhere are you asked if you are interested in helping a young person find a way to be in the world.

Is this who we are?

The road many of these youth are on – lack of education, petty theft, escalating drug crimes, and access only to low wage jobs -- doesn’t do anything to help our community. With time and attention, they could be in school, in Enterprise for Equity’s entrepreneur program, the next members of the downtwon clean team. They could be working, volunteering, and supporting each other to reach their dreams.

This is possible.

Downtown could be a place where young people live and work and contribute to their community. If the City of Olympia came up with some strong incentives to start new businesses in downtown Olympia, there’d be more jobs for them.

Those jobs could potentially enable them to one day purchase one of the new affordable apartments being built downtown. And they would then spend their money downtown. Everyone would win.

How do we get there? It’s not so hard and it is more about volunteerism than it is about money.

We need about 100 of you to be mentors. We need about 100 more to be job coaches. We need about 100 more than that to be foster parents.

This is the elephant walking through downtown, and we can keep the elephant from breaking our windows with a little attention and a lot of love.