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    When we paid caseworkers in cookies: A brief history of serving homeless youth

    How King County built an integrated - and pretty effective - system for helping homeless young folks. From scratch.
    The Shelter, Seattle's first home for homeless youth, was located on Beacon Hill.

    The Shelter, Seattle's first home for homeless youth, was located on Beacon Hill. YouthCare

    Editor's Note: Last month, Crosscut's Judy Lightfoot took a look at the current state of King County's services for homeless youth. In this prequel, writer and social services veteran Sinan Demirel takes a look at how we got here.   

    On a stormy night in 1999, a 20-something woman wandered into the feeding program that friends and I had organized for the homeless denizens of Seattle’s University District. Though her speech was slurred to the point of unintelligibility and she couldn’t walk more than a few feet without falling over, I soon realized that she wasn’t just an intoxicated diner wandering in off the streets. In the hours that it took to find her one of the last shelter spots available in the city that night, it became clear that there was something seriously wrong. 

    As I pieced together her story I discovered that her state-appointed caseworkers had just dropped her off in the rainy parking lot that night. The young woman, whom I’ll call Carly, was terminally ill with Huntington’s Disease, which had claimed the life of her mother. I managed to locate her father, but he wasn’t much interested in seeing her, let alone coming to help.

    Carly came to haunt me in the coming years as I and a cadre of others who cared about her swam upstream against a system that had no room for someone with her challenges. She eventually landed in Western State Hospital, which would become her final resting place, in the care of an attending psychiatrist who seemed more medicated than his patients.

    Carly is one of thousands who have passed through the complex system of social services that has assisted homeless youth and young adults in our region — sometimes well, sometimes not so well — during the past half-century. The system is more integrated than it was in Carly’s day. Agencies are more coordinated and the people who run them collaborate in new ways. But it remains a work in progress. This is a story about the evolution of that support system, and the advocates who helped create it.

    The Early Years (1960 - 1970)

    Young people leaving home too early is a problem as old as the country itself. (The U.S. foster care system began to emerge in the mid-19th century; Seattle Children’s Home was founded in 1884). But the late '60s and early '70s saw a wave of new and very visible street youth. A small group of local medical professionals and social workers who were hip to youth culture were among the first to recognize that something new was happening and they became the initial responders. 

    Physicians Robert Deisher, Charlie Huffine and Hugh Straley helped establish the first youth clinics in Seattle, with the help of people like Mavis Bonnar (still the coordinator of the Teen Clinic at Country Doctor on Capitol Hill) who calls herself “probably the world’s first peer counselor.” The late Lee Kirschner, whom Bonnar calls “a larger than life Annie Oakley type character, a powerhouse of a woman who could crush anything that got in her way” was instrumental in creating the first of these efforts, the Open Door Clinic in the University District (1967-1980).

    In those early days, the focus was more on young people who had homes that they could safely return to, and “more about drugs than homelessness,” says Huffine. But in the years to come the system would be inundated with a cascade of problems: Youth fleeing abuse and neglect at home as growing economic inequality pushed more families past the brink. Youth struggling to cope with sexual exploitation on the streets, and with the mental illnesses that typically strike in the young adult years. The full force of these factors was not yet clear in the early ‘70s.

    Gimme Shelter: JoAnn and Larry Sims

    JoAnn and Larry Sims (below) moved from eastern Washington to the Seattle area in 1972 at the behest of their former pastor, who suggested they make their way to Shoreline Baptist Church. “The church was dying,” recalls JoAnn, barely able to pay its bills. Its dwindling congregation needed a mission and a ministry, and a small group of church members began to wrestle in earnest about how to move forward.

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    Posted Wed, Mar 5, 5:59 p.m. Inappropriate

    Wow, Sinan! Thank you so much for this history lesson. I had no idea until I read this what came before. The path ahead will be made by good people such as these with good ideas and the passion to turn them into reality.


    Posted Mon, Mar 31, 8:54 a.m. Inappropriate

    Sinan this is a wonderful testimony to the tireless advocacy of so many amazing advocates in Seattle and their personal and tireless contribution to ensuring that Seattle's homeless youth and young adults needs are met not only emotionally but spiritually and phyically as well. It is a honor to be among such fearless leaders. If not for the youth and young adults I have encounter I would not be the person I am today.


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