For young people on the streets, Cocoon House provides a refuge
When Lux Howard came out to his mother seven years ago, his mother laughed in his face. Only 14 at the time and living in Upstate New York, Howard didn’t have the life skills or language to adequately communicate what he was experiencing: discomfort in a female body, an attraction to boys and girls, and a general disconnect with his peers. Every six months or so through the following years, Howard continued to broach the topic of gender identity with his mom, who he says brushed off his questioning as “just a phase.”
Howard’s relationship with his father was equally fraught. Howard says his dad saw Howard’s rejection of his female identity as a personal affront, and didn’t understand Howard’s desire to transition to a more masculine physical presentation.
Howard spent most of his high school years feeling like “the weird kid,” he says, always last to be picked for group projects or for teams in gym class. He moved out of the house shortly after graduating from high school, but life didn’t get much easier. He says he has had trouble securing stable housing because of trans-phobic landlords.
Now 21 and living in the Bayside neighborhood of Everett, Washington, Howard identifies as transgender and queer and uses male pronouns. He is more comfortable with his identity now than he was as a teen, but he hasn’t forgotten the difficult, confusing and often painful journey he’s been through.
Howard brings his life experiences to his job as an outreach youth counselor at Cocoon House’s Outreach Center, a drop-in center for homeless or displaced youth in Everett’s Delta neighborhood. Here, young people ages 12 to 24 come by after school for a snack, a game of pool, an opportunity to socialize with friends or to get help finding jobs or housing.
“I’m able to relate to the kids through my own lived experiences,” he says.
Serving Snohomish County’s homeless youth
The reasons they’re homeless vary. According to Cocoon House’s research, 63 percent are fleeing conflict in the home, 24 percent are dealing with parental substance abuse, and 26 percent are experiencing physical or sexual abuse. Many who identify as LGBTQ are rejected by family or peers for their sexual orientation or gender identity.
“A lot of our youth that are LGBTQ are coming here because their parents have kicked them out,” says Rachel Mathison, Cocoon House’s director of housing. “Many of them leave home before coming out (as LGBTQ) because they’re scared their parents won’t accept them.”
Cocoon House’s research shows that within 48 hours of becoming homeless, young people will be propositioned by a sexual predator, pressured to join a gang, or approached by a drug dealer. Without options, homeless youth often drop out of school, turn to prostitution or turn to crime to get by.
Howard’s job at Cocoon House is to meet young people on their terms, whatever those terms may be. He may spend his afternoon helping a student prepare a resume, researching available housing, or just visiting with a young person who’s stopped in for a tube of toothpaste and some potato chips.
“I want them to understand that this is a safe place to be,” Howard says, “and I want to be able to help them pull out of their struggle.”
Premera helped close the gap
Cocoon House has helped more than 30,000 young people and their families break the cycle of homelessness since it opened in 1991. The drop-in Outreach Center, which was visited by 800 young people last year, is just one of several options Cocoon House offers homeless and displaced youth. Two additional houses in Everett and one in Monroe offer short-term and long-term housing, and a third home in Arlington provides housing for pregnant and parenting teen mothers and their children.
Combined, the housing program serves more than 400 young people each year, and soon, thanks in part to a gift from Premera Blue Cross, there will be more.
Earlier this year, Premera Blue Cross completed the final piece of funding for Cocoon House’s future Colby Avenue Youth Center broke ground in March and is slated for completion in 2019. The insurance company used part of its one-time refund from the federal tax cut passed in December to pay for the $1.6 million grant. In total, Premera committed nearly $40 million over five years in Washington and Alaska to address behavioral health issues such as addiction and adverse childhood experiences, with a specific focus on how these issues affect homelessness.
When it is completed, Cocoon House’s $12 million center will include 20 additional units of new housing and space for classrooms, a community kitchen, counseling offices, a clinic, a music studio and a number of other programs.
“We’ve been supporters of Cocoon House in the past through volunteering and, last year, they were one of the nonprofits who received inaugural Premera Social Impact grants,” says Paul Hollie, leader of Premera’s Social Impact group. “For this project, we saw the nonprofit’s need and wanted to support the great work they’ve already done with Snohomish County youth. We hope that with our support, Cocoon House is able to reach out to more young people and guide them during what may prove to be the toughest time in their lives.”
The grant is just one way Premera is supporting Cocoon House and the larger LGBTQ community. Premera is a key sponsor of this year’s Seattle Pride Festival, and has invited Cocoon House to march with Premera employees and their families in the June 24 parade in Seattle.
“It gives us a chance to celebrate our togetherness rather than what often divides us,” says Hollie.
A place to relax and socialize
The doors at Cocoon House’s Outreach Center open each weekday at 2 p.m., and the place quickly fills with young people. By the time the doors close for the evening at 6:30 p.m., more than 50 youth have passed through. Some come to take a shower, pick up travel-sized bottles of shampoo and deodorant, or head to quiet space upstairs where they can listen to music and relax. Others come for a hot meal that’s served at 4:30 p.m. The center is also a meeting point for youth to connect with social workers or job placement counselors.
Many, like 19-year-old Jalen, come to socialize in an atmosphere that’s welcoming and nonjudgmental. She started coming to the Outreach Center at age 13.
“I was mean when I started coming,” she jokes, sharing memories one recent afternoon with several staff members. Homeless for a time, she’s now meeting with Cocoon House counselors to polish her resume and secure job interviews; something she laments not doing sooner. “I just didn’t care back then!”
“It wasn’t your time,” shrugs Elysa Hovard, Cocoon House’s director of outreach. “You weren’t ready.”
Cocoon House staffers — 17 at the Outreach Center and just under 100 agency-wide — go out of their way to meet the needs of the youth they serve. Erwin Saenz, Cocoon House’s community engagement officer, recently jumped through hoops to procure a free tuxedo rental for a transgender youth to attend Pink Prom, an annual LGBTQ dance in Snohomish.
“We had to make it happen for him,” says Saenz. “This was the first time (the youth) was in a space that supported his decision.”
Stories like this are common at Cocoon House. Howard has several of his own, but the ones that involve gender-questioning youth are the ones that hit closest to home. Through his work at the Outreach Center, Howard has not only seen positive changes in the lives of the young people who drop in, but also in his own life as well.
“I don’t quite know who I am yet, but I’m a lot happier with how I present than I ever have been,” says Howard. “I’m not perfect, but for now it will do.”