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

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

One night a young teenage girl overdosed in the church parking lot. It rocked the small suburban congregation. “And we started asking questions,” says JoAnn. What they learned — that the young girl was a runaway who would be arrested once she recovered — shocked and motivated them. “We said, we have to do something about street kids.” JoAnn recalls. “And we were naïve. We thought if we found a safe and neutral place for kids who had run away then everything would be okay.”

In those days before the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act (RHYA) — federal legislation that established the first national programs and funding for unattached youth — the only way for JoAnn and Larry to legally shelter young runaways was to become foster parents. Like others in the church, they had misgivings about that kind of commitment. Then, on the night they were scheduled to meet with church members to discuss foster parenting, their doorbell rang.

“It was a little girl,” says JoAnn. “A friend of our daughter’s. Holding the hand of her little brother who was about two years old.” The  girl had come home to find her mother gone. Her brother was getting hungry, so she came to the Sims house for help. And that was that. Larry and JoAnn fed the kids, called the cops and knew they were ready to become foster parents.

The officer who came to the Sims house that night told Larry and JoAnn that he hated this part of his job because it rarely led to a happy outcome. It was against the rules to leave the brother and sister with JoAnn and Larry, and he couldn’t find a place that would take them both, "and it was just tearing us apart," says JoAnn. The siblings were eventually reunited with their father, but from that night on, JoAnn and Larry were committed to the idea of creating a shelter for homeless kids.

After some hesitancy, the church governing body agreed to sell its building and use $40,000 of the proceeds to help open a youth shelter. The shelter started with an all-volunteer staff, and placed kids in the homes of volunteers who were licensed foster-care providers. Pretty soon police officers began bringing youth. “It was illegal,” says JoAnn, “but the cops said, ‘This isn’t right,’ and brought them to us.” Social workers came to help. “We paid them in dinners, cookie boxes,” says JoAnn. “We had no money.”

Of course, caring for runaways was more complicated than they’d expected. “We learned fast that running away from those homes was probably the smartest thing these kids ever did,” says JoAnn. They found more foster homes, and more social workers. They connected with Dr. Hugh Straley to access health care services at the youth clinic downtown. Eventually they moved their operation into the city, and before too long opened a residential facility called, simply, The Shelter.

Pretty soon the police were dropping off teens, and sometimes kids as young as eight or nine. When Congress passed the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act, federal dollars became available. The Shelter grew into YouthCare, now a multi-million dollar agency that has become a national model for its continuum of services for homeless youth.  In their first year (1972-73) working with homeless kids, JoAnn and Larry Sims figure they helped between 35 and 50 kids. In 2013, the Orion drop-in center, just one of YouthCare’s many programs, served over 2500.

The ‘70s: The arrival of street smart Jim Theofelis

While the Sims’ were organizing The Shelter, a younger and more offbeat group called Youth Advocates was doing street outreach and setting up its own live-in facility. The Residence was located near the border of Capitol Hill and the Central District. A young guy named Jim Theofelis began volunteering there in 1977. 

Theofelis is now the executive director of The Mockingbird Society, and the state’s most effective advocate for foster youth. He oversees a $2 million budget, which supports programs that range from legislative advocacy to innovative foster-care models. His shoes are always shined, in military spit-and-polish fashion — a throwback to his Navy days — and he dons a suit and tie when he travels to Olympia during each legislative session to lobby and testify on behalf of Washington’s foster children, who number around 10,000 on any given day. But back then, he looked like he belonged on the streets rather than in the halls of power. Charlie Huffine describes a young street savvy Jimmy T in long hair and leather, who “knew how to go into the donut shop and pull out the thirteen-year-old prostitute without getting stabbed.”

Theofelis (below) was introduced to Youth Advocates when organizers gave a presentation to a college class he was taking. “I did a shift the next day because I was so smitten,” he says. The outreach workers dropped him off downtown and said they’d be back in an hour. They didn’t return until “the next day,” says Theofelis. He was on his own, no training, no back up, “with kids all tripping on acid.” But he persevered, and eventually was hired to run The Residence.

“I was going by the seat of my pants, as a street kid myself,” he recalls. So, apparently, were the people in charge. One night he noticed that the facility’s license was about to lapse, so he “broke into the administrative office at 23rd and John, got the master files, typed in the application with my name and got the new license in the mail.”

Youth homelessness was becoming much more visible in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s and the street culture that emerged was tinged with a sense of bleak desperation. “Nobody was looking for [the runaways],” says Theofelis. “Home was not a place they could go back to even in their darkest moment.” A “core group” of young people began to coalesce into a kind of “community within a community,” he continues. “They made the conscious or unconscious decision that this is my life for a while. It was the voice of trauma.”

While working for Youth Advocates, Theofelis organized another residential facility. After The Shelter morphed into YouthCare, he became its Clinical Director. (By that time JoAnn and Larry Sims had moved on.) 

1980s: The Donut House and Streetwise, the documentary

During the 1980s, YouthCare began to grow into the powerhouse organization it is today. Vicki Wagner, a former runaway herself, became its executive director in 1985. “There was something personal” for her in this work, she says.

During her 20-plus years at the helm, Wagner oversaw an expansion of the organization’s budget (currently over $10 million) and programs, which now include a drop-in center, emergency shelter, transitional housing, education and employment services. She went on to become the executive director of the National Network for Youth in Washington, D.C. before returning to Seattle to run the Youth Suicide Prevention Project.

This was the era of downtown Seattle’s notorious Donut Shop and Monastery, and the Oscar-nominated documentary Streetwise (1984), which brought Seattle’s homeless youth culture to national attention. “There was a point at which all of a sudden I would go to 2nd and Pike and there would be hundreds of homeless youth on the street,” recalls Debra Boyer, who did groundbreaking research on street youth for her Ph.D. at UW (in 1984) and later served as YouthCare’s deputy director. “It became clear that this was something different from [San Francisco’s] Haight-Ashbury [scene]. This was something else.”

New services emerged for these increasingly visible street youth: the Christian ministry New Horizons in downtown Seattle, the Denny Place Youth Shelter and Auburn Youth Resources in south King County. Friends of Youth was already operating on the Eastside, and the north end had the Teen Hope shelter for a number of years. As the center of gravity for street youth culture moved north — to Capitol Hill and the U District — new agencies emerged.

In the late 1980s, a group of UW nurses began Teen Feed, which exists to this day, providing hot dinners for homeless youth in a rotating collection of U District churches. The youth shelter that opened in some of those same churches a few years later eventually morphed into ROOTS, which I directed from 2002 until 2010. As drop-in centers and other support services opened up, the U District became a focal point for homeless youth agencies.

Capitol Hill services were fewer in number, but Lambert House, a drop-in center for LGBTQ youth, which opened in the late '80s, began to attract a number of young people who were gay and homeless. Many were forced to leave their homes because of their sexual orientation. Today, LGBTQ youth are over-represented in the homeless population with estimates ranging as high as 40 percent.

The activist '90s

In 1994, a force of nature named Elaine Simons returned to the Seattle area, after a number of years on the east coast. She landed a summer job teaching at a school program located at YouthCare’s Orion Center. In an effort to boost attendance for her afternoon classes, an exasperated Simon asked students, “How can I get you to come back?”

What they wanted, students told her, was to stage a concert to raise awareness about their struggles on the street. She agreed to let them work on organizing the concert if they did school work in the mornings. “Enrollment skyrocketed,” says Simons. “Then I added other stipulations.” Like participation in counseling and other support services at the Orion Center.

The concert took place at Seattle Center's Mural Amphitheater. It was a smashing success, attracting hundreds of youth, city officials and the press. The mayor declared it “Peace for the Streets Day” and a new organization was born: Peace For the Streets By Kids From the Streets (PSKS), located in the heart of Capitol Hill.

Other politically savvy youth were taking action themselves in the U District at the time. John Fox, the city’s best known housing activist, would look out his window at the Seattle Displacement Coalition and watch as 30 or 40 young people at a time gathered in the parking lot to plan activities. They were “very impressive,” Fox recalls, “living under anarchist principles.” They were also “extremely wary” of Fox, and adults in general. But that began to change after he opened his office to them.

They would come in to use the copy machine and hold meetings. Many were well read in radical philosophy and the ‘90s saw the unfolding of a vibrant street youth culture. It was a time of street youth activism, and the energy and grit they displayed earned them respect and helped to expand services

Some created their own group, The Invisible City Freedom Project. Some would squat in vacant buildings nearby and others banded together to form “street families” for protection. Many of the street youth helped to organize demonstrations against the No-Sitting (on public sidewalks) ordinance championed by then Seattle City Attorney Mark Sidran. They were engaged and resourceful — and when one of their demonstrations attracted ongoing TV news coverage, they leveraged the attention to help create a new housing program. 

“You don’t realize how resilient these kids are, how capable,” marvels attorney Casey Trupin, Project Coordinator for the Children and Youth Project at Columbia Legal Services and one of the state’s most effective champions for the rights of homeless youth. There’s a “tremendous amount of untapped potential.”

Some homeless youth just need a safe place, a trustworthy ear, or a lucky break to help them find their own path. Mavis Bonnar, the youth clinic coordinator, points to Lyn Tonelli, a 14-year-old who “would come to the clinic, hang her head on the counter and say, ‘Teach me everything you need to know to run this clinic, cause I’m gonna run it someday.’ “ 

Tonelli ran away from home as a young teen. She was arrested for shoplifting, but her parole officer became her ally and she slowly started to build a life for herself. She worked — at the KFC on 3rd Ave and then at the downtown Woolworths. She finished high school. She got into medical school. She's Dr. Tonelli now and she came back to do exactly what she told Mavis Bonnar (below) she would: She ran the clinic.

What made the difference? “The most important thing is that you find someone who is supportive of you without being judgmental,” says Tonelli. “My teachers knew my parents had left the state so they parented me. And I had a drive to succeed.”  And the good fortune to wander into Mavis Bonnar’s clinic.

The 2000s: The era of data and coordination

As the broad array of services for homeless youth continued to grow and diversify, policymakers began to focus on coordination. They commissioned several studies and convened groups of providers, both formal and informal, to find better ways to collaborate in this environment of shrinking budgets and growing need.

“Private funders have tried to fill the gaps,” says YouthCare’s current executive director Melinda Giovengo (at left). Most notably the Raynier Institute & Foundation, which granted $7.75M to YouthCare and ROOTS in 2010. (The Raikes and Giddens foundations, Ballmer Family Giving, the Seattle and Medina foundations and United Way also support at-risk youth.) Perhaps, the most promising development, notes Giovengo, is King County’s new Homeless Youth and Young Adult initiative, an attempt to merge the constellation of independent providers into an integrated system of services.

We’ve come a long way from the days when JoAnn and Larry Sims were paying social workers with cookies. Many agencies, organizations and professionals focus on homeless youth today. Public and private dollars support programs. Veterans like Giovengo bring savvy and compassion and decades of experience to their work. But how can we preserve that personal, human touch in today’s world with its emphasis on systems and data and coordination and efficiency? “How do we scale the services so that we can idiosyncratically meet the needs of individual children?” asks Giovengo. “Every case is different. I’ve never seen two who were the same.”

“Think of what it was like to be a teen,” says Megan Gibbard, the project manager for the county’s new Homeless Youth initiative and another system veteran. “The most simple thing we can do is to see homeless youth and to acknowledge them. Humanize them. We all need help growing up.” 

Some years back, JoAnn and Larry Sims were dining at the BurgerMaster in U Village when a lovely young waitress approached their table. At first they didn't recognize her. Then she reminded them that she'd stayed at their home for a few weeks back when they were foster parenting. Now here she was, a UW student, working at a job and reconciled with her mom.

“Those weeks I stayed at your house," she told Larry and JoAnn, "changed my life.”

Photo of JoAnn and Larry Sims courtesy of Washington State University. All other photos by Allyce Andrews. This story is made possible with the support of the Raikes Foundation and Crosscut members. 

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