Sinan Demirel, former executive director of ROOTS Young Adult Shelter in the University District, has some eye-opening numbers to illustrate the problem of homelessness among individuals age 18-25 near the UW campus: “During 2005, ROOTS turned away 217 young adults because of lack of space," he says. "The next year’s total was 595. Then it was 1,038, then 1,349. In 2009 we turned away 1,761.”
Last year Demirel started discussing new directions in youth services with Melinda Giovengo, executive director of YouthCare, a program with six sites in Seattle that provide housing, education, and job training for at-risk young adults and youth under 18. The two agreed that a program midway between ROOTS and YouthCare was needed: Even with the supplemental services at ROOTS, its 25 overnight beds are merely stopgaps, and YouthCare’s transitional and permanent housing requires more personal self-sufficiency than some young clients can muster.
“Melinda and I saw youth cycle back and forth,” Demirel said. “So we asked ourselves, ‘What if instead of lining up for one night on a mat and having to leave the next morning, they could count on their own bed every night? What if they had a room with 24/7 access, where they could store their stuff instead of having to carry it around all day?’ At the same time they’d agree to an intensive case management program, flexible so that they wouldn't have to leave until they were ready.”
Thus the idea was born for Catalyst, a program YouthCare would operate. After staying in a ROOTS or YouthCare shelter, Catalyst would move clients into rooms of their own, with a building-block program to help even those with mental health and addiction issues become more stable and capable of independence. “Lots of them are already working and almost ready to transition to another stage,” observed Demirel. “When they demonstrated their ability to meet the demands of long-term housing, Catalyst would work with other agencies to find placements.”
Giovengo and Demirel applied jointly for a grant from Raynier Institute & Foundation, established in 1994 by Seattleite James Widener Ray, a multimillionaire who lived on Capitol Hill and died in 2005. Said Demirel, “Jim Ray cared about homeless youth, especially those with drug addictions and mental illnesses — he had bipolar disorder.” A Raynier board member told Demirel how annoying it was to dine with Ray at a restaurant. “Apparently,” said Demirel, “Jim was always in a manic mode and ordered way too much food, then asked that the leftovers be packed up to go. It really embarrassed the board member until once he drove Jim home and realized that he purposely ordered too much food so he could drop it off for a homeless guy who lived along the way.”
A grant of $7.7 million from Raynier will go toward financial stability and improved facilities for ROOTS, and will help YouthCare expand its shelter space and develop Catalyst for transitioning young people into more permanent housing.
The Raynier grant was Demirel’s farewell gift to ROOTS. “With the agency in good financial shape at last,” Demirel told me, “it was time to move on.” He has accepted the post of executive director at Elizabeth Gregory Home in the U District, which provides transitional housing to women leaving the streets. In the three years since it started, the program has helped 56 women move to independent housing, Demirel said.
EGH suffered financially during the economic downturn, but Demirel is hoping the organization can coordinate with other agencies to address women's homelessness. “Remember Paul Schell? He declared that the city was going to end homelessness for women. It was a segment of the homeless community we could do something about, he believed, because it was only 25-30 percent of the total. ‘Let's do the do-able,’ Schell said. But it didn't get done.” Demirel says too many agencies now are duplicating services and struggling for separate funding, so his strategy is to bring some of their functions together to create economies of scale while each maintains a distinctive identity.
Demirel hopes that donations from individuals will carry EGH through the coming months while he reaches out to other agencies. "We're healing the same world," he says. "We need to find ways of doing it together.”