OKLAHOMA CITY — A Democratic lawmaker said Wednesday she wants to remove the barriers for homeless youth living outside the state’s foster care system.

State Rep. Chelsey Branham, D-The Village, said she’s filing legislation for a second year to permit a public-private partnership between the Department of Human Services and social service providers in Oklahoma City.

Branham said thousands of youth in Oklahoma — most over the age of 15 — are experiencing homelessness or routinely “couch-surfing” because they have no parents or guardians or lack stable home lives.

Branham said these youth may not be the best fit for the foster care system. Lacking access to medical care, identifying documents or employment, they can’t obtain the permission of a legal guardian.

She said the “Connecting Futures Act” would be piloted initially in Oklahoma City, but she hopes to later expand it statewide.

Providers want to find barriers that homeless youth are facing and develop solutions through legislation to allow them to overcome obstacles, said Jamie Caves, director at Sisu Youth Services, which provides an overnight youth shelter.

“The current laws and practices oftentimes kind of put barriers in the way, and so we’re really looking forward to having the opportunity to remove those barriers in these special circumstances for these youth,” Caves said.

Branham said 85 minors were living on Oklahoma City streets on one of the coldest days last January. Meanwhile, Oklahoma City Public Schools estimated about 1,500 students were homeless or “couch-surfing.” Rural school districts report their numbers of homeless youth ranged from four to 25 students, she said.

She described the situation as a problem that is “pretty invisible” in Oklahoma.

The collaborative effort will meet the needs of this unique population of youth, said Justin Brown, director of the Department of Human Services.

“These are youth who do not have the supports afforded in a typical family situation, and they have also not been adjudicated deprived and brought into foster care,” he said in a statement. “This legislation will meet these youth right where they are, giving them the support they need to thrive and build tools to help them successfully enter adulthood.”

Branham said homeless youth aren’t admitted to foster care services and are resourceless. They aren’t interested in pursuing foster care services and are trying to dodge the system, she said.

In one case, providers worked with a 13 year old boy already living on the streets for two years, following the cancer deaths of both parents. The teen didn’t have any relatives or places he could go. In other instances, parents are incarcerated and children have nowhere to live, she said.

Jennifer Goodrich, CEO of the Oklahoma City nonprofit Pivot, said state laws exist that allow social service providers to help homeless youth, but they’re only the beginning of the work and not the answer to what needs to be done.

“There’s going to need to be a real understanding of what the law says can and can’t be done, and with the partnership with DHS, really getting to the community (and) educating different kinds of providers of what they can do and then working with them so there’s a level of comfort,” Goodrich said.

Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhi.com.

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