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.
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.