Orgullosa: The Intersections in Our Identities

When I wrote about the reasons why I choose to use the word Latinx, for myself and for A Way Home Washington’s organizational voice, I touched on the fact that within the community there are vast differences of opinion on the word. You’ll likely find just as many cases for embracing the word as you’ll find rejections of the word floating out there. For me, one of the strongest reasons to embrace Latinx is to recognize the intersections in our identities.

Last year, I read an interview with Pose actress Mj Rodriguez where she spoke about how as Latinx people we must evolve in our understanding and treatment of the LGBTQ+ community. Watching the season 1 Pose episode where Blanca sees her family for the first time in years made me deeply sad because I felt the scene could have taken place in the 80s (when the show is set) or in 2020. In the rejection of the word Latinx, I see a resistance to recognize and embrace queerness in our community.

As with all issues that disproportionately impact a certain community, we must dig deep into the root causes if we want to solve it. Just like people of color aren’t born predisposed to homelessness, Latinx people aren’t born predisposed to transphobia and homophobia. But we are raised in environments filled with the scars of colonialism and white supremacy, and we internalize narratives that oppress the LGBTQ+ community.

While Latin America is a region filled with people of Indigenous, African, and European roots, many cultural markers that we associate with latinidad today are the vestiges of European colonization. When the Spanish came to our shores, they were dually interested in the continent’s natural riches and in spreading Catholicism. To this day, some Latin American people and Latinx people in the United States point to their religion as the reason they discriminate against the LGBTQ+ community. Even within the past few years, I have seen protests rise in my home country, Panama, opposing the notion that schools should teach children that trans and non-binary folx are part of our community, worthy of respect.

¡Orgullosa! Proud to be Latinx and pansexual!

As a pansexual Latina and an advocate to end young and young adult homelessness, untangling the web of beliefs that leads to discrimination within my community matters to me. First, because LGBTQ+ people are part of our Latinx community, and we deserve for our identities to be acknowledged and respected. And second, because when we say that LGBTQ+ young people and young people of color disproportionately experience homelessness, we must recognize that these two identities do not exist separately. Many young people are LGBTQ+ AND people of color, and I want to be part of a culture that cares for them and gives them homes where they can feel safe and loved.

“Con un dedo no se tapa el sol.” You can’t cover the sun with a finger. That’s what my father told me yesterday when I spoke to my parents about my desire to raise Latinx children who grow up knowing that LGBTQ+ folx are part of our community, worthy of respect. I chose to interpret that as a tiny concession in our generational divide, an acknowledgement that hiding the truth from children won’t get us to a better world. After that conversation, I thought about all the other Latinx children who’ve grown up to see that discrimination – whether it’s transphobia, homophobia, anti-Blackness among non-Black Latinx folx – has no place in our culture. That it was not a part of our culture to begin with, but has taken root after centuries of colonialism. We’re out here, talking to our elders, committing even before our children are born that they will feel safe and loved by us as they are. And I am hopeful that together we will be enough to create the culture our future needs.

We Can’t Collect Data Without Shifting Culture

June is Pride Month! To commemorate the Stonewall riots that took place in late June 1969, each year, across the United States, we join in countless festivities to honor the past. As we are continually reminded, during these revolutionary times, that riots have led to civil rights for marginalized communities, I wanted to turn our attention to the words of Marsha “Pay It No Mind” Johnson. “No pride for some of us without liberation for all of us.” At A Way Home Washington, we are working toward the liberation of LGBTQ+ young people in our system by centering LGBTQ+ data collection in our work to end youth homelessness.

We believe that to end youth homelessness we must end disproportionality within the homelessness system. According to True Colors United 2019 report, we know that 20-40% of youth experiencing homelessness identify as LGBTQ+ although 7-10% of the youth general population identifies as LGBTQ+. Washington is a leader in discussing Sexual Orientation Gender Identity Expression (SOGIE) data collection but, in my humble opinion, it’s time for some implementation. SOGIE data is instrumental in ending youth homelessness for a population that greatly makes up the overall homeless population. With Black Trans Women disproportionally leading most horrible statistics, disproportionately showing up in murder statistics to name the most horrible, how do we equitably serve my community experiencing homelessness?

As I searched for “best practices” in this area, I kept running into a common problem that showed up for communities from San Francisco to New York City. Every community reported that LGBTQ+ folx do not trust systems with their SOGIE data. This is not surprising knowing how historically the HIV/AIDS epidemic ostracized and demonized queer men, specifically, creating a distrust in our medical system. This still plays out today as we saw transgender healthcare protections reversed under our current administration. During my time working in social services, as an employee, I experienced microaggressions around my gender identity and heard discriminatory comments made by staff due to their “misunderstanding” of young people’s sexuality and/or gender identity. Living out loud is not safe in or outside of our systems of care, so why would an LGBTQ+ community member entering homelessness trust us?

The first step is answering that question for yourself, then your agency, and then the broader system that your agency inhabits. We must shift the internal culture of our system, centering equity for LGBTQ+ and young people of color. This looks like interrogating our spaces, interactions, and responses to crisis through an anti-oppression lens. We also must critique what aspects of white dominant culture inhabit the “rules and regulations” that we follow to protect the clients as well as the folx serving them. Of course, there are big policy and legislative shifts, like insurance covering gender affirming surgeries and operations for your Transgender employees, but there are small changes that go a very long way, like making a Pride agency logo for June.

Sylvia Rivera at the Fourth Annual Christopher Street Liberation Day March, 1973. Photo by Richard C. Wandel 1973

When I think about LGBTQ+ inclusivity, safety, and security within a system I think about the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) and the STAR House, founded by Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera following the historic Stonewall Riots in New York City. Marsha and Sylvia saw that Transgender and Queer homeless youth were not getting their needs met and founded STAR to fill that gap. STAR was the first of its kind, but what would it be like if every youth homelessness shelter already incorporated safety and security for Trans and Queer homeless youth? What would it be like if transitional housing services were more thoughtful of the barriers to employment for Trans individuals? What if we all, in the youth homelessness sector, were so thoughtful and proactive about equity that LGBTQ+ young people felt safe wherever they turned for support? We need to create that system before we start asking folx to trust us with their SOGIE data.

Ending Police Violence Is Our Fight

Our Coaching and Improvement Coordinator Isaac explains why our sector cannot sit on the sidelines as our communities fight to end police violence. Please help us elevate community organizers’ demands in Seattle and send a message to Mayor Jenny Durkan calling for less policing and more community-based solutions,

I can’t start writing without acknowledging #GeorgeFloyd and the long list, spanning 400 years of American violence, of Black and Brown folks murdered by the state. The murder of Black and Brown folks by the state has been embedded in the history of the United States. As a Black person living in this country, I still struggle with finding ways to talk about this history and our current times like it’s not my own.

These murders are a reminder that this world does not see me as equal due to the color of my skin. I remember the words of James Baldwin, that “to be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” My mother and grandparents made sure to keep me conscious, and suspicious, of the state at a young age. Even as they held positions in systems they called corrupt, we survived on truth, transparency, and the knowledge that things could be better.

Black and Brown families, youth and adults, keep disproportionally falling through the cracks of public services due to racial discrimination and/or bias within these systems. This struggle of calling for our “systems of care” to care for everyone has been carried for centuries by Black and Brown revolutionaries, but it’s not just my problem, or Black and Brown people’s problem. It is a problem for our whole society to solve.

As an advocate for ending youth homelessness, I do not struggle to talk about how the system fails young people experiencing homelessness, every day. What I do struggle with is knowing that this system is directly connected to the state-sanctioned violence that allows police brutality to disproportionally impact Black and Brown people. The overrepresentation of Black and Brown folks being arrested, over-policed, and ultimately gaslit into submission at the hands of the folks who are tasked with “protecting and serving” communities can easily be connected to the overrepresentation of Black and Brown youth in the homeless system. Black and Brown communities are at no fault in this overrepresentation, though our cultural narratives would have us believe so.

These narratives do not serve us in our work to end youth and young adult homelessness. As workers in this sector, we must adopt anti-racist practices to end the funneling of Black and Brown youth into our system. Black Lives Matter is our fight, as are the countless other movements demanding police accountability. Standing in solidarity with these protests is standing in solidarity with the 16-year-old Black young person who cannot access services due to biased federal mandates that rule our local shelters. It’s standing in solidarity with the 23 year old Latinx young person who lost all of their belongings in an encampment sweep.

The fact that large groups of folks experiencing homelessness can be categorized as a gang and jailed is police brutality. Calling to end youth homelessness must require our systems to end police brutality. Here are a few things we can do as a system:

  1. Listen to Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) young voices to inform your system FIRSTAt a demonstration I recently attended, the organizers gave a safe space for young people to use their voice for change. In our system, you need to allow feedback from young people to better inform your practice. Those young people need to represent the disproportional number of BIPOC in our system. If you are noticing that you are listening to mostly white voices, you need to start asking why. Wherever you are at in elevating young people’s voices, you need to add an anti-racist lens. The youth are the future, so do not prematurely bury them with their ancestors by not listening to them.
  2. Collaborate with the advocacy of BIPOC folks in your communityFind your local Black Lives Matter affiliate and learn from their practices. During this time, we have seen millions of links to bail out funds, mutual aid funds, and meal trains. These programs have existed since the Internet began, and they have been organized by grassroots community efforts. Partnering with these efforts rather than creating this intricate maze of care that young people continuously struggle to navigate centralizes support. Ending youth homelessness looks like talking to all folks trying to change the world, so get connected!
  3. Create advocacy agendas and demands requiring police brutality and encampment sweeps to end in your communitiesIn Seattle, our police force has over $400 million to “protect and serve.” Our local organizers demanded the City cut that budget in half and reallocate those funds into community-based solutions. Could you imagine what we could do if part of that money was used to end youth and young adult homelessness? Imagine how much money the whole entire state has allocated to policing while we know that policing homelessness is not working. We need to advocate for these types of changes so that we can stop state-sanctioned violence at the hands of “protect and serve.’

George Floyd’s daughter recently was recorded saying her daddy changed the world. I imagine that Martin Luther King Jr’s kids, Malcolm X’s kids, and many other revolutionaries’ children felt the same. But what about the folks that are not elevated in the news? What happens to their kids? Our work is to make sure that they do not end up in homelessness. That they do not get exited from any program into homelessness. That they feel safe and secure in a world that historically has not protected them due to their skin tone. We need to stand with justice, and not the system that calls itself justice currently. The kind that is demanding that things change for the better. For all of us.

Gathering Youth Feedback in Pierce County

For the past 12 months, Anchor Communities have been working hard to achieve quality, real-time data. To reach this milestone, communities must create ways for youth and young adults to provide feedback on their experience accessing systems. In Pierce County, the Core Team created a special committee to work on this task, consisting of Angel, Brianna, and Zaira, three young people with lived experience, and iLeana, The Mockingbird Society’s Youth Engagement Coordinator. Together, they created a new process from start to finish to gather feedback.

“Being involved from the beginning of the project is essential to calling our process co-design,” Angel said. “Everyone’s perspective matters.”

The team worked on a survey to provide young people a safe space to provide their feedback. To begin, they drafted survey questions and worked with young people at the REACH Center GED program to review their questionnaire. This gave the team guidance on how to ask the questions in a way that young people would feel comfortable providing honest feedback. Then, the team developed multiple methods to distribute the survey:

  • The team started with a computer survey. However, some young people had difficulty focusing or reading from the computer, so other methods were developed.
  • Young people were hired to ask the survey questions in person. This helped young people in crisis feel supported throughout the process.
  • Staff who interact with young people for the Coordinated Entry process were trained on the survey so they could also collect information when possible.
Zaira, Devon, iLeana, Angel, and Brianna at A Way Home Washington’s advocacy day

This entire process was led by Angel, Brianna, and Zaira. They were responsible for every detail of the project, from typing up the questionnaire to developing the survey distribution methods. iLeana supported them as needed to keep the project moving, providing coaching on matters like meeting deadlines. This approach helped Angel, Brianna, and Zaira nurture their leadership skills and take full ownership over the project’s outcome.

“It was very valuable for me to have accountability in my projects, like in creating this survey, because it lets me own my own mistakes and successes,” Zaira said.

After gathering responses, the team’s key insights from the survey were:

  • Youth and young adults need easier access to programs that teach independent living skills
  • Young people who are couch-surfing do not always qualify for resources even though they need support to access basic necessities

Our Anchor Communities value co-development of projects with youth and young adults, and this project demonstrates why this is such an important value. Youth and young adults experiencing homelessness navigate these systems every day, and we need their expertise to truly understand what’s working and what’s not. Our work needs to intentionally engage young people on a regular basis, so we rely on current and relevant insights.

“Youth need a seat at the table, and they need to be heard at the table,” Brianna said. “We need to be involved from the beginning of the process, we need to be involved in the design of solutions, and these opportunities need to be compensated and accessible for young people.”

Our partnerships with young people with lived experience are one of the reasons we believe the Anchor Community Initiative is the right approach to ending youth and young adult homelessness. With young people’s wisdom, we know we can arrive at the right solutions.

Responding to Crisis in our Anchor Communities

Communities around the state have been rallying to support young people experiencing housing instability as the COVID-19 outbreak unfolds, and our Anchor Communities are no exception. Anchor Community Core Team meetings have provided a space for communities to strategize around ways to respond to young people’s needs during these difficult times. Check out the strategies Spokane and Walla Walla have implemented to better serve young people:

Spokane

Spokane has an established Youth Action Board (YAB) that informs youth and young adult homelessness work in the community. Following public health guidelines, YAB meetings shifted from being in-person to being online, and the community noticed a decrease in participants. The team knew that without an active YAB, their work could not move forward.

“Our Youth Action Board is critical to ensuring that youth and young adults are represented, empowered, and active participants in local decision-making,” said Cecily Ferguson, our Spokane Anchor Community Initiative Coordinator. “The group informs improvement projects and reduction strategies for the Anchor Community Initiative, and one member sits on our Continuum of Care as a voting member to help shape our homeless services system.”

Spokane set an attendance goal of 10 young people per meeting and created a plan to achieve this goal at a recent Anchor Community Core Team meeting. The team decided to:

  • Create informational materials explaining the YAB to garner interest
  • Team members volunteered to reach out directly to 1-3 young people each to invite them to join the YAB
  • Identify any technological barriers that keep young people from attending these meetings and troubleshoot these barriers

After implementing these action items, two young people joined the meeting for the first time after being referred by community partners. They came prepared to the meeting and were engaged, enthusiastic, and thoughtful in their feedback and conversation, and ended the meeting interested in staying involved. The team will continue their outreach efforts towards the goal of reaching 10 total participants per meeting.

Walla Walla

The LOFT is an under-18 HOPE Center run by Catholic Charities in Walla Walla. As the community’s efforts to house young people amidst the pandemic intensified, shelter beds remained open at The LOFT. The Anchor Community Core Team used their meetings to identify the following barriers and solutions to ensure youth could access these beds:

  • Knowledge that The LOFT remained open – With in-person outreach diminished, the team created electronic flyers to advertise broadly that The LOFT remained open. The flyers were distributed through social media and to partners like schools who remained in contact with youth.
  • The LOFT policies – When our state’s stay-at-home order went in place, The LOFT had to implement more safety measures and secure schedules. The team heard feedback that some youth accessing services found these measures too restrictive. The LOFT decided to implement morning conversations with youth to talk about and adjust the daily schedule in a way that felt more empowering to youth.
  • Direct outreach – The LOFT staff committed to follow up with youth who had previously accessed their services, to check in and provide information about resources and services that remain available.

“School closures, in-person support group cancellations, and limited access to technology are making it harder for youth to stay connected and gain access to resources,” said Samantha Jackle, our Walla Walla Anchor Community Initiative Coordinator. “We want to stay diligent and ready to adapt our outreach and case management efforts based on the needs of youth in Walla Walla County.”

After the team made information available broadly and through partners, the referral rate from DCYF increased. Youth also began to stay longer after The LOFT staff began morning conversations.

Helping Young People Receive the Stimulus Payment

In a matter of weeks, the COVID-19 outbreak has created the conditions that could lead to a huge influx in our state’s youth homelessness system. A spike in unemployment, an economic downturn, instability in every sense. All this puts young people who’ve worked very hard to secure stable housing at risk of returning to homelessness.

At the same time, this crisis has led society to see that we need to do more to support the most vulnerable people in our communities. The past few weeks have brought on eviction moratoriums, decarceration efforts, a newfound dedication to housing everyone. In this moment of creativity and inventiveness, we need to capitalize on every opportunity to effect the system-level and policy changes that will help us end youth and young adult homelessness.

In the social sector, our organizations’ platforms and voices are one of the tools we have at our disposal to push for change. We’re also responsible for listening to the people we serve, and focus our energies on efforts that will make a meaningful difference in their lives. For us at A Way Home Washington, one of those efforts has been providing young people with information on how to get their federal stimulus payments.

In my recent conversations with young people experiencing housing instability, I’ve heard them say that access to cash would go a long way to help them stay housed right now, and the stimulus payment would give them just that. Many young people who have experienced homelessness have experienced the trauma of dealing with complex systems that weren’t designed for them, and have rightfully lost trust. The young people I talked to had little hope that they’d actually receive the payment. Filling out forms, updating their banking information, making sure the payment came to the right place – all of it felt too overwhelming.

Our stimulus payment social media toolkit

I’ve come across a lot of amazing, detailed guides on the stimulus payment for service providers, like this comprehensive guide from YMCA. I felt a different resource was needed, too – one that could outline the information young people needed in the most straightforward way possible. I also wanted to create something that could be shared directly with young people through the channels they’re already plugged into, like social media. Our in-house communication capabilities and our access to local organizations in the Anchor Communities positioned us to create a stimulus payment social media toolkit and add to the resources that already existed.

Many young people experiencing homelessness have bounced around from place to place, have never had to file taxes, and are now disconnected from schools or service providers that may have helped them complete these types of processes before. All of this leaves them disempowered in the face of this crisis and uniquely positioned to not receive their stimulus payment. The toolkit includes the contact information for local resources in our Anchor Communities, helping connect young people with other support they may need. Many of these resources, like the Youth Engagement Team in Walla Walla and the ACT outreach team in Pierce County, exist in part because of Anchor Community Initiative funding, and now more than ever it’s important for young people to know that these resources are there for them, right in their own community.

If even one young person receives their stimulus payment because they saw the information we provided, it was worth investing time and resources into creating the toolkit. We are living through possibly the biggest upheaval we’ll experience in our lifetime. This moment has taught me the importance of pivoting quickly, intentionally creating space to hear from the people most affected, and decisively stepping into roles where we can be uniquely supportive. There is such a strong connection between our mission to end youth and young adult homelessness and the work of responding to this pandemic, and it is our responsibility as non-profits, as advocates, and as community members to create a society that is always ready to respond to the needs of those furthest from justice.

Help us share the stimulus payment social media posts far and wide! The toolkit includes text for Facebook posts and a set of images, in English and in Spanish.

Safe Housing and Environmental Justice

On Earth Day, our Communications Director Sully reflects on how safe housing and environmental justice are intertwined.

When Governor Inslee kept $500,000 towards the Centralized Diversion Fund in the final state budget, we all let out a sigh of relief at A Way Home Washington. We knew that the COVID-19 outbreak meant lower revenues than expected and difficult decisions for the Governor, so we were all glad to see supports for young people experiencing homelessness remain intact. But at the same time, my heart felt heavy for the opportunities that the pandemic cost our state. It was especially hard to see $50 million towards reducing the effects of climate change disappear, because I am convinced that safe housing access and environmental justice are intertwined.

Environmental justice applies an equity lens to environmental issues. Communities of color and low-income households are disproportionately affected by issues like air pollution, industrial pollution, and climate change. The Front and Centered Environmental Justice Map shows that our state is no exception, and areas with higher numbers of people of color experience higher environmental health disparities. This is not a coincidence – it is the result of decades of discriminatory housing policies and environmental regulations that put flight paths and industrial waste dumps in these areas.

As advocates to end youth and young adult homelessness, we are working towards safe and stable housing for young people, and towards supports that help young people’s whole selves thrive. We cannot fully achieve either of these goals without environmental justice. In the past year, we’ve seen how the worsening effects of climate change are rendering homes unsafe and unstable around the world, and specifically affecting indigenous communities. In my homeland of Panama, the Guna people settled on the Caribbean coast after centuries of colonial displacement from their inland home, and now rising sea levels are displacing them once more. Bushfires in Australia wiped away thousands of homes, displacing thousands of aboriginal people and destroying their cultural sites. We cannot wait until wildfires in the Pacific Northwest push thousands of people out of their homes before we act decisively against climate change.   

Displacement is just the most obvious connection between environmental hazards and housing instability for vulnerable communities. As the COVID-19 outbreak unfolds, we’re seeing the more nuanced impacts of environmental injustice on communities of color. By now, we’ve likely all heard that pre-existing health conditions, like diabetes and asthma, put individuals at higher risk of developing complications from the virus. Some have even gone the extra step and made the connection that COVID-19 is impacting Black and Latinx communities more severely because these communities have higher rates of these pre-existing conditions. But we can’t stop there. We also have to face the reason why these communities have higher rates of these health conditions – systemic racism.

Systemic racism is responsible for everything from inequitable access to healthcare to the chronic stress caused by discrimination. It’s responsible for the poor environmental conditions of areas with large populations of people of color, an underlying cause of higher rates of asthma. Pair higher rates of asthma with greater representation among frontline workers still reporting to their jobs, and many people of color face a lose-lose situation: Go to work and put their health at risk, or lose their income.

So, how can we stop environmental injustice? Just like with ending homelessness, we need to think about upstream, system-level change. Individual actions to protect the environment, like reducing our personal consumption or single-use plastics or driving less often to lower our carbon emissions, can only take us so far. We need to continue these individual actions, and also advocate for systemic change, like holding corporations accountable for negative environmental impacts and investing in mitigation efforts that center people of color.

Start your journey as an environmental justice advocate by learning about the work already going on in our state. Organizations like Front and Centered and Got Green are leaders in environmental justice to follow, centering the experiences and leadership of people of color. Let’s work together to create a world where all young people are housed, and where every young person lives in a healthy environment!

What Does Diversity Mean to Us?

Since 2004, April has been designated Celebrate Cultural Diversity Month. We took a moment to reflect on how the conversation around diversity has changed over time, and how diversity, equity, and inclusion show up in our work and in our lives. Here’s what staff have to say:

How has the meaning of diversity evolved for you over the years?

Isaac: Growing up in the Midwest, I thought about diversity as having people of different shades and genders in large groups. Now, I think about diversity as representation and having different voices at the decision-making table.

Deonate: Empathy and inclusion have always been important to me, and as I’ve learned about more populations my view of diversity has grown, particularly in the workplace.

Erin: I grew up in a predominantly white, suburban Seattle neighborhood. In the 80’s and 90’s, I remember being taught in school and at home about cultures and traditions that were different from my own, while also receiving explicit and implicit instruction that “color-blindness” was the best approach. In my young adulthood I sought opportunities for cultural and linguistic exchange that allowed me to see my upbringing and its cultural norms from different points of view. In the last 10 years or so, I have been fortunate to develop and deepen personal and professional relationships that have taught me more about systemic racism and oppression, and have continued to expand my understanding of how and why diversity matters.

Jim: Initially I struggled with understanding the importance of stating my pronouns and and honoring others’ pronouns.  I now understand that not only was that an example of my privilege but an important piece of truly respecting other human beings including colleagues, friends, and loved ones.  I still forget sometimes to state my pronouns, and I realize that’s a reminder of the safety, comfort, and privilege that comes with my identity.

Describe a moment that illustrates the importance of approaching our work through a lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Elysa: Over the past year, I have been leaning in around my learning edge in equity work and how to check my own fragility.  Over the past year, I’ve noticed that I sometimes go in shutdown mode during conversations about dismantling white dominant culture and advancing equity in the workplace – I become silent and don’t lean into conflict. I’ve been trying to check myself, really be self-aware when I am in shutdown mode, and engage in courageous conversation and conflict. The fear of saying the wrong thing is ever present for me and I am trying to braver and step up because that’s how you grow and learn.

Sully: When we asked ourselves if it was possible to end youth and young adult homelessness without also advancing racial and LGBTQ+ equity, we knew the true answer was no. But we realized that under the current technical definition, communities could indeed claim to end youth and young adult homelessness without achieving equitable outcomes for young people of color and LGBTQ+ young people. I’m very proud of the work our Data & Evaluation Director Liz did to create a new definition so communities we work with do need to work toward equity measures as part of their journey to end youth and young adult homelessness.

How do you promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in your work or in your personal life?

Ashley: Being the parent of a white child, I’ve reflected on my own experience growing up and I am committed to ensuring my child does not see white people as “normal” or better. I didn’t have my first POC teacher until college, or my first Black teacher until grad school, so I’m invested in enrolling my child in schools with diversity in teachers, and also ensuring diversity in the toys my child plays with and the stories we read together.

Liz: I am conscious of the media I consume and who is the author and creator. I try as much as possible to seek out the perspectives of Queer Trans Black Indigenous and People of Color (QTBIPOC), people with disabilities, those most impacted by the issue at hand and those furthest from justice. I use social media to connect with other QTBIPOC from all over the world, and the supportive relationships I’ve formed with amazing people I wouldn’t have met otherwise have helped expand my worldview. I am so glad I have this supportive network in place as we face the COVID-19 outbreak.

Anne: When we order food for A Way Home Washington events, we’re committed to putting ‘our money where our mouth is,’ literally, and ordering from POC- or LGBTQ-owned businesses. I’ve made this commitment in my personal life as well.

A Silver Lining

Youth, young adults, and alumni with lived experience have the wisdom and expertise we need to develop effective solutions to youth and young adult homelessness. Justice is a lived experience expert working with our Anchor Community Team in Spokane, and this is their story of why they advocate for young people.

When I was 14, I lived with my parents who adopted me from Donetsk, Ukraine and brought me to the United States of America. Once I came to the US, I faced abuse for years and eventually grew tired of it. One night I remember feeling like my fight and drive were running out because I had been struggling for so long. I desperately tried to get help for my siblings and me. I remember feeling continuously disappointed wherever I turned.

I entered the Child Welfare System under the Washington State Department of Children, Youth and Families when I was a minor. Rosey Thurman, an attorney with TeamChild Spokane took my case and helped me file a Dependency Petition as the sole petitioner. Mrs. Thurman supported me and listened to me. Through this experience, I found my passion for law.

I am one of the many young adults that fell through the cracks of the system. So, in my despair, I turned to writing. It became a passion of mine. Meanwhile, I dreamed that one day I would be somebody that does something to make the system less broken. That’s why I do this advocacy work. I do it so that other youth won’t have to experience the same pain, despair and disappointment that I did.

Justice

There is a silver lining in every situation. You just need to be willing to fight on patiently and look for it. I experienced homelessness once as a minor and three times now as a young adult. And as an individual facing chronic, complex medical issues, I am also experiencing the immense struggle of navigating a healthcare system that is not designed for my mental or physical well-being. However, I am thankful for living through the pain and despair because those experiences have taught me how to better help others who have similar experiences – that is my silver lining.

Since becoming an advocate, I have been passionate about engaging with state departments where I am meant to access services. Beyond my personal needs, my biggest driver for advocating has been to improve the quality of services for youth and families that depend on the system. My long-term goal is to become an attorney, but I recognize that I am already a content expert through my lived experience in the child welfare system and homelessness. I work as a consultant today because I cannot wait until I earn my J.D. through law school to stand up for youth and young adults – like TeamChild did for me.

Here is a poem that I wrote:

Editor’s Note: This poem contains a reference to self-harm.

Don’t Look Back

By: Justice Sun

As life hammers,
You down to the ground,
It feeling as though,
You are sitting in space,
Watching the world pass you by,
Day by day.
You only growing older,
By the second.
Your head spinning,
From one direction to the other.
You feeling all hope,
For you is gone.
Sitting playing with a knife,
Contemplating,
That ugly thought,
To end the life,
That lays before you,
You stand on your two broken feet,
And throw that knife,
Out of bodily reach,
And in return,
Your dreams,
Are in your reach,
You are who you may not want to be,
But,
Don’t look back,
For the old you may be crawling,
Closer to the person,
Who is rising to the sky,
Becoming like a tower,
Running to the person,
With an ugly past,
But a star bright future,
And that is you.

Why I Advocate

Youth, young adults, and alumni with lived experience have the wisdom and expertise we need to develop effective solutions to youth and young adult homelessness. Roel is a lived experience consultant, and this is his story of why he advocates for young people.

Here’s the thing about working with A Way Home Washington—To me, it doesn’t seem like work at all. It feels like it’s the correct and natural thing for me to do. I’m sure this stems from my background.

For many years I experienced instability that overshadowed many parts of my life, as well as spells of homelessness. I spent many days wondering where I was going that night. I also spent many nights wondering if the safety of day would come. It wasn’t a good feeling. Even still, many youth experiencing homelessness have it way worse than I did. I’ve been so lucky to have good outcomes in situations that look and should be devastating.

Roel

That’s why my work with A Way Home Washington is important. No youth or young adult should have to wonder where they’re going to sleep, shower, and eat so they can recuperate. A lot of people do not know how it feels to really experience homelessness and how it takes a toll on everything about you that is human. It makes obtaining a job difficult. Without a job, housing becomes almost impossible to obtain. If you receive any money it usually goes to food and the essentials necessary to survive. The saddest part of everything is that you spend so much time trying to survive that it becomes impossible to see growth within yourself because you aren’t living your life.

When you must worry about the basics, you can’t begin to think about pursuing anything other than that. School is a distant thought, important things like healthcare get put on the backburner.  After a while, you get stuck in this cycle. Going from shelter to shelter or couch to couch begins to feel normal. You ignore the aches and pains and learn to live by consuming the emergency resources around you. Imagine your heart is always beating fast from adrenaline, hunger getting pushed to the back of your mind, and you are rarely ever sure if you’ll have a safe place to sleep tonight. This is the norm for youth and young adults experiencing homelessness.

I believe the work I do with A Way Home Washington helps the system take steps in the right direction. I got lucky with the people in my life. I was lucky to have a good team supporting me. Throughout it all people like Jim Theofelis never gave up on me. They continued to present me with opportunities to pursue my passion of helping to solve the problem of youth and young adult homelessness.

These events that occurred in my life as a result of homelessness are but just a microcosm of what A Way Home Washington and the Anchor Community Initiative have set out to solve. They really “walk the walk” and it reminds me of my early years advocating with The Mockingbird Society.

At different points in my life, both The Mockingbird Society and A Way Home Washington had been a guiding light when I was in dire need of something to hold onto. The work provided a sense of hope. And sometimes that’s all the spark it takes to get the engine going again. It was that for me and I hope it can be for other youth and young adults experiencing homelessness in Washington state. I know my work with A Way Home Washington is helping to reduce and end youth and young adult homelessness, and that is why it’s important to me.