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In short, most homeless kids don't need a safety net. They need paths they can take to maturity.
Many programs in our region already combine some essential services for homeless youngsters, such as shelter or housing with pathways to high school degrees or employment. For example, Friends of Youth (FOY) in Kirkland is building new YYA housing, adding 20 beds for a total of 105. YouthBuild teaches FOY kids construction skills, and a subcontractor working on the new facility gives them hands-on experience.
In downtown Seattle YouthCare provides overnight emergency shelter and various job programs including a Farestart course in barista training. The goal is not just to prepare kids for café jobs, but to train them in the daily discipline of showing up on time and doing the work.
A year-old Shelter to Housing partnership between ROOTS Young Adult Shelter and the YMCA, supported by the state’s Department of Commerce, combines housing with employment assistance. The program moves a number of homeless 18-26-year-olds who bed down at ROOTS into apartments scattered throughout the city. They receive rent subsidies in return for following a YMCA regimen of job training, monthly meetings with their case manager and compliance with mental health or addiction programs if they need them. The rent subsidies shrink as their incomes rise. Now, 47 of the 51 young adults accepted into the program are housed and 38 are employed, says YMCA housing director Kristen Brennan.
An innovative jobs program, launched last fall as a pilot, invites young people at the ROOTS shelter to work in the Clean Alley Project (CAP), funded by the city’s department of neighborhoods. Working in small groups supervised by Street Youth Ministries (SYM) and paid a minimum wage, they clean up U District alleys twice a week for three months. They also learn how to write resumes, manage time and navigate conflicts with bosses. Participants who prove job-ready get an interview with PCC Natural Markets. Two young adults on the first team landed part-time jobs after their stint with CAP, and the second CAP team is now up and working.
“When the idea was first launched, I was ‘Who’s going to want to do this?’” says Kate Phillips at SYM, who supervises CAP. “It’s not just unglamorous. It’s dirty.” But none of the participants objected to cleaning up filth around dumpsters or scrubbing away graffiti. One youth told Phillips he was excited because “people will see us in a different light if we’re working.”
“The best-kept secret is that housing isn’t the Number One motivator [for homeless youngsters],” says ROOTS director Kristine Cunningham. Their first priority “is employment, to show they have a place in the world and people who recognize their worth.” A service program, she continues, should “attract them with work, and while they do that, provide housing” so they can be ready for the workplace each morning.
These programs have proven effective, as far as they go. However, King County still has a serious, ongoing shortage of both emergency shelter and transitional homes for youth. The need for housing and shelter could overwhelm the YYA Initiative if its other strategies fail to reduce, and significantly, the size of the homeless youth population.
One Comprehensive Plan priority is adding YYA shelters in South Seattle and South King County, where it’s almost impossible for providers to find emergency services for teens. A new six-bed shelter that the plan helped fund at Auburn Youth Resources fills up instantly, according to program manager Joe Woolley, who says that about 20 Auburn-area kids under 18 are still sleeping rough every night, and that 25 young adults currently live on the riverbanks. The shelter shortage hits homeless Rainier Valley youth really hard, confided another provider. Many don’t dare venture out to more service-rich downtown Seattle for fear of being attacked by fiercely territorial gangs.
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