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A geography of homelessness

Credit: Allyce Andrew

Services for homeless youth have come a long way since the documentary Streetwise thrust Seattle’s runaways into the spotlight in 1983. Back then downtown’s International Donut House was the clubhouse of sorts for Northwest street kids. On any given day as many as 300 could be spotted wandering in and around the infamous First & Pike bakery, whose owner, Guenter Mannhalt, was eventually arrested for turning the young runaways into a band of thieves.

Neighbors cheered when Mannhalt went to jail and his donut shop shut down. But for the outreach workers who were desperate to find street kids before the pimps and drug dealers and other potential predators could get to them, the loss of the Donut House meant the end of one-stop shopping. In the post-Donut era, the homeless youth population fanned out across the city, showing up at the various shelters and teen feeds and drop-in centers which were cropping up around town, sleeping indoors when they could land a shelter bed, sleeping outside when they couldn’t.

These are some of the more common gathering spots, daily way stations for the thousand-odd King County teens and young adults who have no place to call home. We’ll start in the University District, a part of town where homeless kids can count on finding a hot meal, a shower and, if they’re lucky, a bed for the night.

Teen Feed

Credit: Allyce Andrew

In the late 1980s, a group of UW emergency room nurses grew concerned when lots of malnourished teens started showing up in their ER. So the nurses started Teen Feed, which is still serving hot dinners to homeless youth — seven days a week, 365 days a year — in a rotating collection of U District churches, including University Lutheran (above), University Congregational and UW Hillel.

Teen Feed serves 40-70 young people each night in the U District, and another 60 or so in its almost year-old Rainier Beach and Auburn programs. “We’re doing our best to recreate the family dinner table,” says executive director Tabitha Jensen, a former at-risk youth herself. A number of Seattle chefs have had a hand in Teen Feed’s menus. Most of the city’s large corporations, including Starbucks, Liberty Mutual Insurance, Boeing and REI, field volunteer “meal teams” that buy and prepare dinners.


Credit: Allyce Andrew

A youth shelter that opened in one of the Teen Feed churches evolved over the years into ROOTS (Rising Out of the Shadows). ROOTS is tucked away in the basement of the University Temple United Methodist Church at 1415 NE 43rd Street. (Look for the double blue doors in the alley between United Methodist and the post office.) Homeless youth aged 18 to 25 who find their way there can get a bed — a mat on the floor — a shower, a hot meal, clothes, toiletries, on-site case management and a variety of referral services. The shelter, which sleeps 45, is run by a combo of paid staff and college student volunteers. “We’re having a community sleepover every night,” says executive director Kristine Cunningham. “College students and [homeless youth] get to know each other and get beyond the barriers.”

Downtown YMCA

Credit: Allyce Andrew

Seattle’s Central YMCA has been providing short-term housing and other support services for foster kids since the 1980s. Specialists help foster youth find jobs, earn GEDs and master life skills like cooking dinner and paying bills.

Credit: Allyce Andrew

Foster kids 18 and up who have “aged out” of the foster care system make up about one-third of the city’s homeless youth population. The Y’s Central Branch is the place these older foster kids can go to apply for a state-sponsored independent living program.

Westlake Park

Credit: Allyce Andrew

Legend has it that a young runaway wandering into Westlake Park will be approached by a pimp, drug dealer, gang member or some other unsavory character within 45 minutes. The 45 minutes part may be apocryphal, but no one doubts that Westlake Park is unsafe after dark, especially if you’re young and on your own.

Orion Center

Credit: Allyce Andrew

Like ROOTS in the U District, YouthCare’s James W. Ray Orion Center (a.k.a. the “O.C.”) at Denny and Stewart is a well-known and essential oasis for homeless kids. Orion dodged a bullet last fall. The center almost shut down after a perfect storm of federal sequestration cuts and expiring foundation grants drained $1.2 million from YouthCare’s budget. Thankfully, Seattle and King County councils stepped in to make up the funding shortfall.

Each night, 15 to 20 young people bed down at Orion. On many nights there are more kids than beds and YouthCare is forced to hold a lottery to decide who gets to stay. “We turn away about five youth per day,” said YouthCare’s Director of Programs, Hedda McLendon. Overflow kids get bus fare so they can travel to shelters in the U District and Redmond.

Cal Anderson Park

Credit: Allyce Andrew

There are roughly 775 homeless youth and young adults in King County. There aren’t enough shelter beds for all of them. Pioneer Square has a reputation as a homeless gathering spot, but not for young people, who tend to avoid that rougher part of town. Homeless kids who aren’t lucky enough to find space in a shelter for the night might wind up sleeping in a doorway, or in some abandoned building or under a bush in places like Capitol Hill’s Cal Anderson Park. Or maybe they won’t sleep at all, wandering the streets instead, sidestepping trouble until the sun comes up.

To see all Crosscut’s Kids@Risk coverage, go here.

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