“I’m not afraid of sleeping outside,” says the scowling, scruffy young man I'll call Ned. He’s homeless because his girlfriend broke up with him and then kept their apartment for herself. He and I are sitting on a damp bench near a U District church, drinking coffee smuggled out of the church’s Sunday social hour.
“I’m comfortable outdoors,” he growls. “Lived in the woods after my dad kicked me out. I was seven at the time. He just couldn’t be around kids. My mom divorced him and couldn't take me with her, and after a while he couldn’t stand me anymore, so I had to live out behind the house. He left food for me on the back porch. I stole apples from his trees. I can live anywhere.”
Ned is 20. He has a slight build, and grimy hands that make him look like he’s been playing in the dirt, but what he's really been up to is planning to get his GED. He’s scored a test-prep manual from Seattle Education Access and signed up there for additional help. I tell him I tutor GED students for free, and when he gives me a sardonic look I add, “But you’re a pretty independent guy.”
“Yeah,” he says, “independent enough to ask for help when I need it. “What’s your phone number?”
Next day my mobile rings. It’s Ned. We make a plan to meet at Starbucks for an hour the following afternoon.
Random encounters with well-meaning adults don’t change the lives of youngsters like Ned. Studies recommend building a research-based continuum of housing and services, and federal funding is now channeled to regions that unite providers into such systems. In King County, the Homeless Youth and Young Adult (YYA) Initiative has joined efforts by the Committee to End Homelessness to turn fragmented homeless programs into well-targeted, economical continuums of care.
The YYA Initiative's Comprehensive Plan has begun by promoting agency coordination, fostering program improvements, collecting relevant data and, of course, marshaling and directing the funds necessary to drive change (see right sidebar). Treating youth homelessness separately, rather than lumping youngsters in with homeless people of all ages (an approach the county took as recently as 1995), is aimed at meeting the distinctive needs of young people.
The goal isn't just managing youth homelessness, as if it's OK for kids to live on the streets as long as not too many minors get frostbite. The goal is reducing the causes of YYA homelessness. The most common are domestic crises in which parents give up on their kids or vice-versa; juvenile justice and foster care systems that abandon youth who serve their time or “age out”; and poor medical care for kids with addictions or psychiatric disorders. Related factors are barriers to finishing school, unemployment and a chronic scarcity of shelters and housing.
A 2020 deadline focuses stakeholders on working with strategic efficiency, even if "ending homelessness" doesn’t mean guaranteeing that nobody will ever camp under a bridge.
“Some kids will always run away from home,” says Megan Gibbard, project manager for the new Initiative. But when they do, “there will be a response system so that they will not have to spend one night on the streets.”
What does Ned need, not just to sleep in safety but to become a self-sufficient adult? According to the federal plan – amended in 2012 to sharpen the focus on youth and young adult homelessness – he needs a constellation of services adding up to something like what other kids get from their church, school, team, after-school or summer job, and, of course, their family. (Fifty-six percent of American 18-24-year-olds live with their parents.) Ned needs education, employment training, health care and practice in the adolescent-stage skills and behavior necessary for functioning in society.
In short, most homeless kids don't need a safety net. They need paths they can take to maturity.
Many programs in our region already combine some essential services for homeless youngsters, such as shelter or housing with pathways to high school degrees or employment. For example, Friends of Youth (FOY) in Kirkland is building new YYA housing, adding 20 beds for a total of 105. YouthBuild teaches FOY kids construction skills, and a subcontractor working on the new facility gives them hands-on experience.
In downtown Seattle YouthCare provides overnight emergency shelter and various job programs including a Farestart course in barista training. The goal is not just to prepare kids for café jobs, but to train them in the daily discipline of showing up on time and doing the work.
A year-old Shelter to Housing partnership between ROOTS Young Adult Shelter and the YMCA, supported by the state’s Department of Commerce, combines housing with employment assistance. The program moves a number of homeless 18-26-year-olds who bed down at ROOTS into apartments scattered throughout the city. They receive rent subsidies in return for following a YMCA regimen of job training, monthly meetings with their case manager and compliance with mental health or addiction programs if they need them. The rent subsidies shrink as their incomes rise. Now, 47 of the 51 young adults accepted into the program are housed and 38 are employed, says YMCA housing director Kristen Brennan.
An innovative jobs program, launched last fall as a pilot, invites young people at the ROOTS shelter to work in the Clean Alley Project (CAP), funded by the city’s department of neighborhoods. Working in small groups supervised by Street Youth Ministries (SYM) and paid a minimum wage, they clean up U District alleys twice a week for three months. They also learn how to write resumes, manage time and navigate conflicts with bosses. Participants who prove job-ready get an interview with PCC Natural Markets. Two young adults on the first team landed part-time jobs after their stint with CAP, and the second CAP team is now up and working.
“The best-kept secret is that housing isn’t the Number One motivator [for homeless youngsters],” says ROOTS director Kristine Cunningham. Their first priority “is employment, to show they have a place in the world and people who recognize their worth.” A service program, she continues, should “attract them with work, and while they do that, provide housing” so they can be ready for the workplace each morning.
These programs have proven effective, as far as they go. However, King County still has a serious, ongoing shortage of both emergency shelter and transitional homes for youth. The need for housing and shelter could overwhelm the YYA Initiative if its other strategies fail to reduce, and significantly, the size of the homeless youth population.
One Comprehensive Plan priority is adding YYA shelters in South Seattle and South King County, where it’s almost impossible for providers to find emergency services for teens. A new six-bed shelter that the plan helped fund at Auburn Youth Resources fills up instantly, according to program manager Joe Woolley, who says that about 20 Auburn-area kids under 18 are still sleeping rough every night, and that 25 young adults currently live on the riverbanks. The shelter shortage hits homeless Rainier Valley youth really hard, confided another provider. Many don’t dare venture out to more service-rich downtown Seattle for fear of being attacked by fiercely territorial gangs.
Stable housing for homeless young people is also in very short supply. The county's new strategy for doling out scarce placements is being overseen by Youth Housing Connection, launched six months ago. YHC's intake process, called Coordinated Engagement, is familiar in homeless family systems but new to homeless youth programs. Young adults can go to any one of nine different homeless youth organizations for an intake interview and get their names on a list for housing. YHC gives priority to the most vulnerable kids, like those in grave danger from untreated health problems. YHC housing comes with supports such as mental health or addictions counseling and other medical care.
One bright spot in the housing picture is that unlike homeless adults, youth don't require long-term homes unless they're disabled. Most youth housing opens up as kids mature and move on with their lives. “If they can get the right services, they should be OK living [for a while] in a crummy studio with roommates, the way we did,” says United Way’s impact manager Courtney Noble. Housing programs for youngsters “can be more creative and flexible than ones for adults.”
Issues such as program alignment, shelter availability and housing continue to be discussed, sometimes hotly, among YYA Initiative stakeholders. Meanwhile, improving coordination and collecting more comprehensive data will keep homeless kids from having to make the rounds of multiple nonprofits to tell the same needy story over and over. Now it’s one interview, and they're in the system.
Coordination has further advantages, like lessening unintentional service duplication and filling gaps by diversifying offerings. Diversity in programming is important given that a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work for homeless youngsters. Fully 80-85 percent return to their families within a week, while fewer than 10 percent remain disconnected for as long as two months and only 5-10 percent become homeless long-term.
Improving data collection and coordinating services also helps to assure that funds are prudently spent. Some critics argue that even a well-managed public system providing for homeless youth encourages maladaptive behaviors and dependency. But studies show that programs which house homeless youngsters and guide them toward social and financial self-sufficiency reduce costly long-term demands they would otherwise make on our corrections and health care systems as adults.
“The time to jump in and try to solve the problem is while people’s brains and social skills are forming,” says Kristine Cunningham at ROOTS. She adds that 50 percent of chronically inebriated homeless people in downtown Seattle say they experienced homelessness before their 25th birthday.
All the support services in the world won’t be effective if kids don’t use them. The secret to engaging adolescents is developing personal relationships with them and putting them in charge of their own progress. It’s not always easy.
Ned, for instance, learned young that camping in the rough didn’t kill him, and he’s proud of his survival skills. Throw in his well-earned suspicion that adults and authority figures don’t have his best interests at heart, and you can see how social service workers might have a hard time persuading him to accept help. “Normal development puts adolescents and young adults in instantaneous opposition to what they are asked to do,” says YouthCare director Melinda Giovengo. That tendency, she adds, is exacerbated in homeless youngsters by the trust violations they've suffered.
So “we need to personalize the system stuff,” says Katie Hong, leader of the youth homelessness strategy at the Raikes Foundation (which is helping to fund this Crosscut series). Personalizing begins when program staffers engage with kids one-on-one and start walking alongside as each tries to grow up. Outreach workers at YouthCare and other nonprofits discover where the youngsters hang out, and then keep going back to them no matter what.
Cocoon House staffers return to places in Snohomish County that attract homeless youngsters, including the most rural areas, and bring supplies. “Maybe it’s a hygiene packet, maybe a sleeping bag,” says CEO Cassie Franklin. “We’re not asking anything of them or telling them what to do or putting them in a box. We’re just here to help.”
After repeated contacts, kids start talking to staffers about what they want or need – a high school degree, a job. Maybe they’ll visit the drop-in center in Everett where they can meet peer mentors who are or were homeless, and find showers, meals, a laundry, a WorkSource unit, addiction counselors, recovery groups and more. Cocoon House and its partners also provide housing with support services to homeless youth, including teen mothers.
In Seattle at the YMCA, “kids come to us,” says Brooke Knight, who directs young adult services. They drop in to use Facebook or hang out with their friends, and when they do, the staff is subtly working to build relationships with them. Over time, says Cacey Hanauer, director of foster care transitions, Y staffers trained in Motivational Interviewing help kids decide what they want to do and identify strengths they’ve used in the past that can shape their future efforts. Then housing, education and employment “don’t seem like such a long shot,” she says.
Staff support for homeless youth is unconditional. Aggression or rudeness may drive other people away, "but we don’t buy into that,” Hanauer continues. “If we say we’ll be there at such-and-such a time, we’re there. If they disengage, we call and leave messages. The more we can just show up and let them know we’ll be there regardless,” the more the kids become willing, over time, to learn the skills they need.
So at the system level, King County is betting that a combination of coordination, smart data collection and management, best program practices and a human touch will, if not end homelessness, then at least protect our homeless youth while they're launched on lives of mature independence. Understanding and respecting the impressionable, volatile psyche of a homeless teen or young adult will be key to the success of the county’s YYA Initiative.
This means understanding and respecting the truth that "risk for these kids” – including Ned – “is not sleeping on the streets, taking drugs or prostitution,” as YouthCare’s Melinda Giovengo puts it. “Risk is taking a chance to be successful, not knowing you will be,” and facing the shame of not being able to read or master a job skill.
Ned, it turned out, didn't show up at Starbucks for our tutoring session. Armored by cynicism about adults and their motives, he needed an experienced outreach worker to connect and reconnect with him. One such worker may have found Ned eventually, but I never ran into him again.
All photos by Allyce Andrew.