What's softball got to do with helping homeless youth?

A lot, when it comes to raising money and attention. Now, the challenge is to build on the interest and implement plans to help young people without homes.
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Seahawks receiver Golden Tate tests his skills at kickball during a benefit for homeless youth.

A lot, when it comes to raising money and attention. Now, the challenge is to build on the interest and implement plans to help young people without homes.

It would be easy to pooh-pooh the United Way All-Star Softball Classic for Homeless Youth that took place at Safeco Field on Saturday afternoon.

After all, while it boasted to be “the largest-ever gathering in support of homeless young people,” it was also quite an impressive gathering of rich, largely white people goofing off and playing softball. The roster included the likes of Seattle restaurateur Ethan Stowell, KeyBank Vice President Randy Riffle, Molly Nordstrom, former T-Mobile CEO John Stanton, and other names that are normally more associated with high finance than athleticism.

There were some fun antics at Safeco Field: Having Seahawks’ Golden Tate try his skills at kickball; former Mariners all-star Jay Buhner’s daughter betraying her father and switching teams (and scoring a run); making former Mariner all-star Dan Wilson go to bat with a large pink foam noodle thing. But the gameplaying also made it seem all the more like the rich person’s version of a fun summer softball game. They just forgot the caviar-drenched hotdogs and Solo cups full of vintage wine.

But whether the softball-homeless connection seemed strained or just a clever vehicle for attracting interest, the event did serve a purpose. For one thing, it brought about 7,000 people to the stadium, along with ticket sales of about 20,000 or so, and it did raise awareness about youth homelessness. Wilson and his wife, Annie, have made youth a focus of their work as co-chairs of this year's United Way of King County campaign.

Speeches and PR pieces gave a broad stroke of the problem, with statistics aplenty. Seventy-six percent of unaccompanied minors are approached by a gang member or pimp within 45 minutes of showing up on the street, according to a recent study by Seattle police. Among the kids that age out of the foster system at 18, one in five become homeless. One in 26 Seattle students experienced homelessness during the last school year. As many as 1,000 young people experience homelessness in King County each night. And, a heartening statistic, nearly 80 percent of homeless youth try to stay in school.

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Photo/Zachariah Bryan. NBA All-Star and former SuperSonic Gary Payton transfers his skills from the basketball court to the softball diamond. After getting first base, he went on to score a run. 

Throughout the game, Safeco's Jumbotron would play interviews with young people who were homeless and who were trying to push through their problems, personalizing the issue.

“It gives a really easy in to an issue that’s really hard to understand,” said Megan Gibbard, King County's homeless youth project manager, who sat with a Crosscut writer for a time during the game. “Every kid needs help growing up. It humanizes that homeless youth are just like you and I were when growing up.”

She added, while pointing excitedly up at the Jumbotron, “To see the kids like that is normalizing and it’s like they’re just little dudes.”

If anyone failed to enjoy the light-hearted antics of the game, then those people are pretty much alone. In the vernacular of a few young people at the game (and who happened to be homeless), the whole thing was fun and “awesome.”

“It’s a way to put it in a positive perspective instead of having it so deep and intense like it’s usually perceived,” said Jackie Affronte, 18, who is part of the Mockingbird Society, a group for children who have in foster care.

Affronte said she left her home because she found it an unhealthy living environment. When she left, she became homeless and tried working two jobs (eventually quitting one) and finishing school at the same time. Now, with her diploma in hand, things are starting to look up, she said. Currently she works full time on a campaign crew advocating and petitioning for the environment.

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Photo/Jon Brumbach. Nicholas Holcombe and Jackie Affronte, both who have experienced homelessness as youth, had nothing but good things to say about the Softball Classic. 

She said, again in the vernacular, that it would be “awesome” if there were more resources for homeless youth. “There’s a lot of youth who sleep under bridges and sleep on streets and it’s really dangerous.”

The event, to be sure, barely scratched the surface of the problem. It certainly didn’t offer any answers on how to end youth homelessness. But as Gibbard said, it “sets the stage.”

“We have the right people in the right place at the right time for this initiative,” she said. There is tremendous leadership right now in government, nonprofit organizations philanthropy. She expressed hope that the Safeco game "becomes the big public event that says, ‘Here are all these leaders really prepared to commit to this, and we’re ready to make King County a national leader on this issue.' "

Obviously, there’s a ways to go. Using the wise teachings of Shrek, youth homelessness is something like an onion: It has layers of complexity and it’ll take a lot of hard work and probably money to get to the core of the matter. At the very least, this softball game has peeled off the outer skin.

But the efforts to end youth homelessness hardly end there. The King County Committee to End Homelessness, United Way, the non-profit group Building Changes and a number of other groups collaborated in developing a 60-page document on priority steps in ending youth and young adult homelessness.

Oh, and if you’re keeping track, Wilson’s team beat Buhner’s 18-17. But both numbers pale in comparison to the amount of money that was raised for youth homelessness: some $1.2 million.


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