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    Case managing homeless youth

    For homeless 18-24-year-olds, one positive relationship with a caring adult can change their lives. That’s what Friends of Youth caseworkers hope to do.
    Jordan Herrera takes advantage of Free Haircut Day at The Landing, a Friends of Youth shelter.

    Jordan Herrera takes advantage of Free Haircut Day at The Landing, a Friends of Youth shelter. Allyce Andrew

    Tolani Ogunyoku, a tall man with a blue V-neck, pokes his head through a set of translucent doors and calls out a name. A teenage boy with a black baseball hat and bright red skater shoes steps through the entrance. Ogunyoku and a helper inspect the boy’s backpack, and ask if he’d like to get on the schedule for a shower, laundry or a therapy session. The two continue this routine until everyone is checked in: the quiet girl with the blue fleece and heavy eyeliner; the nerd carrying Magic cards in a duct-tape bag; the Spanish-speaking kid with the gray cap and baggy jeans; the older guy from Ballard who used to be a traveling salesman. Thirteen clients in all.

    Welcome to The Landing, an emergency homeless shelter in Redmond, one of many facilities operated by Friends of Youth. Shelters like this serve 20 percent of the homeless youth in King County, or 156 of the 779 homeless youth who participated in King County's 2014 Count Us In survey.

    “Everybody has their own reason for being here,” says Ogunyoku, the shelter’s director and case manager. The personal paths of homeless youth are as varied as the tasks that case managers like Ogunyoku juggle daily as they try to guide their clients beyond the chaos of homelessness to more stable, solid ground.

    Like any 18-24 year old, youth who frequent The Landing are entering an adult world in an era of rising inequality. They’re tasked with learning life skills like how to budget for necessities such as food and rent, and negotiate thorny situations with friends, bosses and co-workers.

    Ogunyoku (below in the shelter's kitchen) remembers being shocked on his first day at The Landing, when he watched a homeless teen typing on her own laptop. “It was an eye-opening moment,” he says. And it provided an important lesson about his clients: Homeless or not, he says, “they still have the same interests and capacity as any other 18-24 year old.”

    Unlike more advantaged 18-24 year olds, however, Ogunyoku's clients can’t always crash at their parents’ place, call dad for a loan or depend on mom’s health insurance to cover an E.R. bill. They have to master adult life skills and secure a job while sleeping in the woods or trying to find a shelter.

    As a caseworker, Ogunyoku’s role is to provide the grownup guidance these young people are lacking. He acts as a mentor, a big brother, a life coach and even, a parental figure, as he guides youth past the precariousness of life without a home.

    One major step towards stability, and a key part of many caseworkers’ jobs, is connecting clients to potential employment opportunities. While 70 percent of homeless 12-25 year-olds say they are actively searching for work, only 21 percent actually have jobs, according to the 2014 Count Us In survey. Caseworkers spend hours trying to lift that percentage by researching job and volunteer opportunities for their clients or helping them apply to college.

    These efforts often do make a difference, but obstacles to employment abound. One young man at The Landing said he used to work at a fast food restaurant but kept having to miss work for court dates related to charges of theft, possession of alcohol, criminal trespassing and malicious mischief. Worried that he would get fired (or be sent to prison), he opted to quit the fast food job. Now he thinks prison is out of the picture, and in spite of his newfound sobriety, he’s still unemployed. For other young clients, transportation, addiction, depression or an unsettling sense of apathy can interfere with finding a job.

    Beyond employment, another key to stability is mastering basic life skills. For caseworker Kate Reeves, who manages a transitional housing facility in Kirkland called New Ground, life skills are essential for keeping kids off the streets. “Often times they don’t know what they don’t know,” says Reeves about her nine young adult clients. She coaches them weekly and hosts regular classes on tasks like how to set up a bank account or call the doctor’s office to request medical records or plan grocery lists.

    “We’ll talk about things like, ‘Oh there’s chicken thighs on sale and I could get those instead of just a jar of peanut butter and a small loaf of bread to fit in my backpack,’” she says. The goal is to get kids thinking beyond tomorrow to six months or even a year down the road. Another critical goal is showing kids that despite experiences with neglect or abandonment, they are not alone.

    That’s exactly what another Friends of Youth caseworker, Brittany Stafiej, helps her clients realize. Stafiej focuses on what’s called the wraparound model, which weaves a web of support around homeless youth. The web might include caring relatives, foster parents, counselors or friends. She assists clients in mending ties with family members, or cultivating bonds with other mentors they may have in their lives. The support networks then help youth turn vague aspirations of “getting a job” or “getting healthier” into concrete steps, like volunteering to beef up their resume or joining the gym. This builds self-confidence and resourcefulness, Stafiej explains.

    Stafiej experienced the power of this kind of support system herself growing up in a working class household. Though she was never homeless, her mom struggled to pay the mortgage and fed her boxed macaroni dinners to get through a tight budget. They fought frequently, and that strained relationship meant Stafiej couldn’t count on her mother to support her when applying to college. Instead, Stafiej depended on an aunt and family friends to guide her though the application and financial aid processes. Their support was essential for her success.

    By day, The Landing is a drop-in center for 15-22 year olds. At night, it's a shelter for 18-24 year olds. Credit: Allyce Andrew. 

    Like Stafiej, Tolani Ogunyoku doesn’t come from a privileged background. His mom, an undocumented immigrant from Nigeria, turned to the Salvation Army for food, clothes and child care. Despite his disadvantaged upbringing, Ogunyuko never had to spend a night on the streets like his clients. Today, he says, “I get to go home after work and I know there’s food in the fridge. I don’t even have to think about it.”

    Staying at the shelter, while temporary, does help his clients to move past operating in a state of emergency. Instead they can imagine what any other 18-24 year old would about where to go to college or how to nurture a caring relationship with a significant other.

    The caseworker’s job comes with daily frustrations — long waiting lists for housing, not enough jobs, seeing kids fail or give up. But Ogunyoku and his colleagues persevere, and manage to stay sane within the chaos. What drives them is the resilience of their young clients, and the hope that one day, they’ll have somewhere to call home.

    Photos by Allyce Andrea. Go here for all Crosscut's coverage of Kids@Risk.

    Marissa Luck is a Tacoma-based writer and editorial intern at Crosscut. She has previously reported on issues of activism, homelessness, and Olympia city news for Works in Progress and Olympia Power & Light. She graduated from The Evergreen State College in 2011, with a BA focused in political economy and international studies. Marissa can be reached on Twitter marissa.luck@crosscut.com.

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    Posted Tue, Jul 8, 10:26 a.m. Inappropriate

    "These efforts often do make a difference, but obstacles to employment abound. One young man at The Landing said he used to work at a fast food restaurant but kept having to miss work for court dates related to charges of theft, possession of alcohol, criminal trespassing and malicious mischief. Worried that he would get fired (or be sent to prison), he opted to quit the fast food job."

    Damn them obstacles: thieving, drinking, trespassing and vandalism.


    Posted Wed, Jul 9, 4:41 p.m. Inappropriate

    It's like his criminality kept dragging him down or something.


    Posted Tue, Jul 8, 10:45 a.m. Inappropriate

    Lots of people have overcome a history of this sort of petty crime and gone on to be citizens who added a whole lot more value to society than your hateful right-wing a** ever will.

    Posted Tue, Jul 8, 12:01 p.m. Inappropriate

    So presumptuous. So typical.


    Posted Tue, Jul 8, 12:33 p.m. Inappropriate

    NOTE TO EDITORS: Credible sources have told me a large segment of today's homeless kids were formerly what used to be called “middle class.”

    But then their parents' jobs were outsourced, their homes were eventually foreclosed and their entire families were evicted into the streets. The families quickly disintegrated, the parents parting amidst venomous and often violent exchanges of mutually hateful recrimination.

    Meanwhile the children either fled their warring parents or were abandoned outright. Though many manage to remain in school, they hide their circumstances in sheer but rational terror they will be declared wards of the state and thus condemned to the (truly) unspeakable horrors of orphanages and/or foster care.

    I know these kids exist, as I encountered perhaps a half dozen during Occupy. My sense of them – confirmed in detail by those who knew them much better – is they are the most bitter, angry, cynical and alienated young people this nation has ever produced.

    More to the point, their negativity is entirely justified: they were raised in a First World setting, with all the Dick-and-Jane comforts and expectations fostered by the American Dream. But now they have been flung into the Third World reality of the post-industrial U.S. economy. And they are savvy enough to know that while they may someday escape homelessness, their poverty is forever – that any notion of any real “economic recovery” for the 99 Percent is just another of the Big Lies used to perpetuate capitalism.

    Yet they seem not the least inclined toward revolution or revolutionary ideologies. No doubt that's because revolutions are built on solidarity and hope, which these kids disdain. They believe solidarity is rendered impossible by human greed and regard hope as naught but a cruel joke we play on ourselves.

    Speaking as a former newspaper and magazine editor, it seems to me there are at least three stories here.

    One is this new homeless-youth subculture itself – its size, its attitudes, its self-definitions, its interactions with the world in which it lives – not just “a day in the life” but rather a month or a year. And since some of these kids keep journals (the few I encountered were all extremely bright), perhaps an opportunity to find and publish a new, 21st Century U.S. version of Down and Out in Paris and London.

    Two are the kids' individual stories: what their lives were like when their parents were working, how their families were destroyed by the relentless progression of unemployment, bankruptcy, foreclosure, eviction, homelessness.

    Three is a cutting-edge look at what “family” means: how the rage and violence with which it disintegrates under financial stress proves that family – at least in the United States – is a purely financial relationship. That's why, despite the romantic camouflage that hides the bottom-line reality of marriage and family, financially ruined parents behave like the principals of any other bankrupt business. They ruthlessly shed their liabilities – which all-too-often include their own children.

    Perhaps Crosscut, given its commitment to resurrecting the in-depth reporting formerly provided by the better newspapers, will pursue these stories as a logical extension of its "kids-at-risk" coverage.

    Posted Sat, Jul 12, 4:11 p.m. Inappropriate

    Kids on the street sometimes experience more solidarity than traditional families. They depend upon and trust each other when they can't trust anyone else.


    Posted Tue, Jul 8, 1:05 p.m. Inappropriate

    Tragic that money is more important than the these kids.


    Posted Tue, Jul 8, 1:56 p.m. Inappropriate

    I don't think it's money per se; from what I have seen, it's rather that, in the United States, the loss of one's money and possessions is also the total loss of one's identity, with all the associated psycho-dynamic ruin.

    This is particularly true in the context of today's economy, where (unless one is unusually fortunate), such losses are irremediable. The poverty of yesteryear could be ameliorated if not transcended. Today when one is flung into poverty, it is inescapable: fully half the nation's families are now definitively lower-income or officially poor, and there is no rational prospect these circumstances will do anything but worsen.

    To be a newly ruined parent in these circumstances is not only to be cast off and abandoned; it is to be cast off and abandoned with little or no possibility of recovery. The resultant depth of emotional destruction is inconceivable to those of us who have not experienced it firsthand.

    I suspect many parents abandon their children in much the same merciful spirit unwanted pets are abandoned in the countryside. In most states -- Washington among them -- parents who apply for state assistance are declared officially unfit if they become homeless or are otherwise economically unable to provide for their children -- never mind in today's economy such inability is typically not the parents' fault. Once these parents are so adjudged, their children become wards of the state, subject to all the (thoroughly documented) horrors of orphanages and foster care. Thus abandonment might actually express parental hopes their kids will escape the certain doom suffered by wards of the state.

    Younger, newly-impoverished females are particularly devastated by this new economic paradigm: instead of focusing on achieving full personhood via education and career, as their older sisters were able to do, newly impoverished younger females are reduced to fantasizing about marrying rich men -- in other words, selling themselves into a glorified form of prostitution and slavery.

    But you are absolute correct the situation is tragic.

    Posted Tue, Jul 8, 3:11 p.m. Inappropriate

    lorenbliss, your comment says clearly that you believe that due to the economy young people, especially young "newly impoverished females" are so devastated that they may as well become prostitutes and/or slaves ...

    Ye gods man. Get a grip.

    The article was positive not negative.

    Posted Tue, Jul 8, 3:36 p.m. Inappropriate

    Please don't misquote me. I did not say anyone "may as well become prostitutes and/or slaves."

    I said marrying a rich man -- the sort of salvation about which economically ruined young woman often fantasize -- is tantamount to prostitution and/or slavery.

    Apropos "positive not negative," that is my sole criticism of Crosscut's otherwise-excellent coverage of this issue.

    With its focus on positive outcomes, the coverage gives the false impression our ruinous economic circumstances are typically ameliorated by happy endings.

    Statistics however tell a radically different story: happy endings are the exception rather than the rule.

    As to the attitudes of the people in the age group in question, the common denominator uniting members of that generation whether homeless or not is their recognition the American Dream is dead beyond any hope of resurrection.

    Thus their aspirations are shaped -- and limited -- accordingly.

    Posted Wed, Jul 9, 4:45 p.m. Inappropriate

    "marrying a rich man is tantamount to prostitution and/or slavery."

    Bitter much?


    Posted Tue, Jul 8, 4:34 p.m. Inappropriate

    I didn't misquote you. You're the one who basically inferred/stated one way or another that you believe young women can't shape their their own destiny and that you feel their aspirations for just about anything positive will be destroyed by a so-called "ruinous economic circumstances" which make their economic futures so unbearable that you can envision no other solution for these young women than to marry rich or simply lead a life of gross poverty.

    Such BS! Such negativity! Let's just hope the young women of today have at least as many brains in their heads as all young women have had in the past, and understand not to listen to the bitter words of a disillusioned person who can't wish well on anyone, especially those doomed young women you have decided can't hold a part in the American Dream.

    I do not know ANY young people, poor or financially favored, who do not have high aspirations and a belief in the American Dream. Your gloomy common denominator description of youth is just a reflection of your own personal outlook, don't put that on them.

    Posted Tue, Jul 8, 6:53 p.m. Inappropriate

    Dream on, PollyAnna: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/census-data-half-of-us-poor-or-low-income/

    Posted Wed, Jul 9, 4:48 p.m. Inappropriate


    Most are single mothers. That's a cultural problem.


    Posted Thu, Jul 10, 6:35 a.m. Inappropriate

    There are quite a few of these kids who are throw aways - that is, their parent(s) are too involved with drugs, partying and generally too irresponsible. Thank the "age of Aquarius" generation.


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