Guest Commentary

Kansas needs to invest in stable housing and job training for its youth

Associated Press

Editor’s note: The juvenile justice reform package passed in 2017. An earlier version of this column had the wrong date.

Every year, thousands of Kansas teens experience homelessness, and many wind up becoming involved with law enforcement or the justice system. Fending for themselves without stable housing, food or other basic needs, it’s not hard to imagine how they become a part of the well-documented homeless-to-juvenile-justice pipeline.

When youth lack food and a home, they are often forced to turn to survival tactics like trespassing or stealing to get by. Many youth without stable housing end up missing school, resulting in a truancy offense getting them in trouble with the law — making their problems that much worse.

We’ve seen it happen to our families and our communities — and we need to show more love and compassion to help young people get out of these situations.

One solution is to provide Kansas’ youth with resources that would allow them to lead productive lives and avoid the pitfalls of the homeless-to-juvenile-justice pipeline in the first place. Housing and job training are two critical areas that help youth become self-sufficient.

Additionally, youth leaving the justice system need access to housing options to help them transition back into society. Rapid re-housing and host homes are several programs supported by the National Alliance to End Homelessness. In New York, Covenant House “provides housing and supportive services to youth facing homelessness and helps young people transform their lives and put them on a path to independence.”

Successful housing programs foster stability in young people’s lives, helps them reintegrate into school, and develops independent life skills. If other states can implement successful models to prevent youth homelessness, we can do it in Kansas.

We must work to provide job training for young people with system involvement, helping them become productive members of the Sunflower State.

Summer job programs are very popular across the country, and according to Brookings, “are effective in reducing crime and incarceration among participants….” In North Carolina, re-entry groups have provided previously incarcerated teens with job education training, boosting their likelihood of staying out of the system.

These programs may seem like a tall order — but in fact, Kansas has already done the heavy lifting. House Bill 2027 and Senate Bill 14, which are currently pending before the Legislature, would restore funding toward the comprehensive juvenile justice reform package that passed in 2017, but was subsequently stripped when, in an appropriations act passed at the end of the session in 2018, the Kansas Legislature took $6 million from the Evidence Based Programs Account.

The reinvestment fund’s original purpose was to provide evidence-based community programs such as housing and job programs for system-involved youth. Raiding the reinvestment fund endangers the full continuum of services young people need to thrive. Fortunately, there’s a chance to get these critical programs back on track, and members of the House Transportation and Public Safety Budget Committee and Senate Ways and Means Committee must advocate for these bills to ensure young Kansans get the support they need.

Let’s make our communities stronger by investing in Kansas’ vulnerable youth.

Taishma Owens-Council and ShaQiyla Banks are youth leaders with Progeny, a Kansas advocacy group working to advocate for a better youth justice system in Kansas.