California's unlicensed youth shelters add regulations

By Brooke Purves

New interim regulations released by the California Department of Social Services aim to soften some standards for runaway and homeless youth shelters, while still watching out for the needs of a vulnerable population.

“At first glance, [the changes] seem to be a really positive step,” said Suzi Dotson, executive director of Wind Youth Services in Sacramento, one of only 33 shelters serving the nearly 200,000 homeless youth estimated in the state.

California Coalition for Youth executive director Paul Curtis said California was one of two states in the country without licensing standards. Until now, California shelters for youth either operated as group homes—the standards for which are designed for foster youth, a different population—or were unlicensed. Neither option was preferable, he added.

Most of the regulations outlined in a CDSS release address things like standardizing staff-to-youth ratio and making sure bunk beds are only two tiers high. But Dotson noted that some regulations will allow shelters to better address the complexities of youth homelessness.

Under the new standards, for example, California’s youth shelters will be considered a special subcategory of group homes, and won’t require “needs and services plans” for each resident, a requirement that potentially diverted time from providing immediate services. Designed for long-term residents, the plans don’t make sense when some minors stay at a shelter for a few days at a stretch, Dotson said. Wind and other shelters operating as group homes either filled out the plans or applied for waivers.

Other than reapplying for licensing under the new designation and revising the program statement, Dotson doesn’t expect any barriers to the way things are currently run. In fact, in addition to the additional time available for assessments and case management, Wind will be better able to serve LBGT youth by offering rooms based on a resident’s preferred gender.

“We definitely have a disproportionate amount of LGBT youth that stay with us, especially transgender,” Dotson said. LGBT youth make up anywhere between 15 and 40 percent of homeless youth, depending on location, according to the California Homeless Youth Project.

Wind serves from six to 10 unique individuals a month, and provides outreach services to another 70-80 homeless youth. A transition-age center serving homeless Sacramentans age 18-24, opened December 22 and is already at capacity.

A final version of the regulations, which follow Assembly Bill 346, The Emergency Youth Shelter Act, is expected sometime this year.

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