On any given night there are as many as 2,000 homeless youths in King
County, Washington. The good news is, this morning in Seattle there are
at least 20 volunteers ready to educate them on their legal rights. Led
by Casey Trupin '95, Street Youth Legal Advocates of Washington,
or SYLAW, offers free legal services to homeless or at-risk youth who
have civil legal needs.
"We do everything from youth rights to dealing with
police to substantive criminal law," explains Trupin. Studies show that
homeless youths have many more run-ins with police, and according to Trupin,
both merchants and cities see these young people as a threat. "Homeless
youths tend to be harassed more. Educating them to deal with police and
assert their rights is extremely important."
Founded in 1996 by Trupin and other students from the
University of Washington, SYLAW is partnered with Columbia Legal Services
and funded by AT&T through the Equal Justice Fellowship Program of the
National Association for Public Interest Law.
After graduating from Pomona, Trupin traveled to Latin
America on a Watson Fellowship to study how other nations dealt with the
issue of youth homelessness. "When you go abroad you realize that people
in other countries grow up, fall in love and die just like we do," says
Trupin. On that first experience with homeless youths, he was surprised
to find that many of the children he worked with simply had no homes.
Some had been born into families that were already too big. He met children
with names like Sexto, literally translated "the sixth child." "That was
when I got interested with working with issues of youth and homelessness,
and I was sure that if solutions were to be discovered, they'd be found
in the U.S." But what he found when he came home discouraged him.
A lot of communities think homeless youths have made
a conscious choice. "It's a constant PR battle for us to explain that
kids are on the streets for many different reasons--parents with lack
of skills, mental health issues, drug problems," says Trupin. "Sometimes
it's that kids have mental health issues that aren't being served. We
tend to victimize the homeless. We think that it's their fault. That's
just not fact." To combat this victimization, SYLAW volunteers visit shelters
and clinics. They educate youths on myriad issues: how to navigate juvenile
court, how to get protection orders to ward off domestic violence, how
to deal with housing issues and tenants' rights, how to obtain welfare
or health care. The list goes on to include such practical information
as Seattle's loitering ordinances.
"The most important thing everyone can do is educate
themselves on why the youth of this country is in trouble," he says. Part
of that is working with this population. "No matter what you do--athlete,
college student, teacher, or doctor--you have a skill that is not lost
on them. Never assume the best way you can help is to give money--it's
important, but it's rewarding to help the kids. You can make such an impact
on them." --Sarah Dolinar