Creating Opportunities and Opening Doors for Young Adults with Our Inaugural Fellowship Cohort Program

Members of the first Fellowship Cohort bring diverse lived experience, talents, and voices to A Way Home WA 

To fully realize our core mission – preventing and ending homelessness of young people – A Way Home Washington (WA) doesn’t just want to “talk the talk,” but actually walk the talk. In addition to preventing and ending homelessness among young people, we also want to provide opportunities and open doors.

One way we’re doing this is through our unique Fellowship Cohort program, which we are thrilled to finally and officially kick off after spending much time developing it. Read on to find out more about how this program came to be, what it is, what the goals are, how it works, and who’s involved!

Why we launched the Fellowship Cohort program

At A Way Home WA, we hold to a set of principles and ideals that motivate us and inform our work. One key principle of ours, one could even say the key principle, is the amplifying and magnifying of young voices. We aim to do this not only materially, by way of addressing youth and young adult homelessness, but also within the work itself. After all, when it comes to meeting young people’s needs – such as housing – young people know best.

From this, we concluded that young people impacted by this work broadly not only should have decision making power in matters that affect them and their communities, but in fact are owed it as a matter of principle. One way in which this is accomplished is through Youth Action/Advisory Boards (YABs), a concept employed not only by A Way Home WA but many of our peer organizations as well. But YABs tend to be community-led, and thus community-specific – while A Way Home WA oversees operations all across Washington state.

Some time ago, our entire staff agreed that we could be doing more to put our money where our mouths are. We wished to integrate the input voices and experience of young people directly in our work – shaping our strategies and their outcomes. In this vein, the Fellowship Cohort was born.

What is the Fellowship Cohort program?

For many, the term “fellowship” suggests a paid internship, or perhaps an opportunity at an educational institution. At A Way Home WA though, we view our fellows as being integral team members working full-time in each of our primary departments. That means that they are salaried and compensated with full benefits, just as our other staff are. 

We set precise parameters to guide the selection of our fellows: They must be between 18-25 years of age, have experience with youth or young adult homelessness, and demonstrate a strong alignment with A Way Home WA’s values. To ensure a richly diverse Fellowship Cohort, we employed a recruitment strategy that leveraged numerous communication channels, from social media to direct peer outreach. The response was astonishing, a testament to the seriousness of young talent eager to effect change in Washington State. Such an extraordinary pool of candidates presented us with the delightful challenge of choosing from among the very best.

By the close of 2022, we welcomed three outstanding young professionals to our team, joining our existing fellow, A Way Home WA’s first fellow, who had already been with us for a year. Together, they represent the face of our inaugural Fellowship Cohort

Furthermore, the Cohort transcends the mere collective of fellows – it extends to include an adept consultant of ours, Michelle Valdez. Under her guidance, the Cohort benefits from functioning also as a cohesive coaching circle, fostering both personal and professional evolution of our fellows. 

What are the goals of the program?

We believe that each young person whose lived experience pertains to our work, regardless of professional experience, education, or skills, has near limitless potential and so much wisdom to offer. 

Each fellow was brought on to join one of four primary departments: the Anchor Community Initiative (ACI), Data & Evaluation, Strategic Communications, and Training & Engagement. All four fellows play a core role in their department’s day-to-day functions; they perform critical duties, carry out specialized projects, receive training and coaching in several skills and aptitudes by their colleagues and superiors, and moreover, these talented up-and-coming professionals contribute lived experience-informed input, feedback, ideas, and much more to A Way Home WA.

The cohort also offers a space in which fellows are able to convene outside of work – to discuss amongst themselves, share and grow with one another, and access the expertise and broad networks of the organization.

Meet the Fellows!


Leeze, now a Senior Fellow in our Data & Evaluation department, was A Way Home WA’s first fellow. They have worked with us since June 2021 in various capacities, including leading the Innovative Grants Program, adding support and creativity to every department, and developing safe spaces where all voices are encouraged to discuss tough issues such as systemic racism and how to dismantle white supremacist patriarchal institutions. Leeze also serves on the King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA) Committee, the All Home King County Youth Action Board, and the Washington State Department of Commerce’s Office of Homeless Youth as a Youth Lived Experience Expert.



Skylar has robust experience in education, lobbying and advocacy, and community service, all focused on helping youth and young adults. Skylar worked for Planned Parenthood’s Teen Council, teaching high schoolers about consent, sexual health, gender, and sexuality, while learning how to create safe and empowering spaces for his peers. He has dedicated himself to using education as a means to enact social change and subvert stereotypes faced by youth and young adults experiencing homelessness. Skylar, now a part of the Training & Engagement department, brings their lived experience and passion for uplifting and empowering youth across Washington state to the forefront of their work at A Way Home WA.



Rocky brings more than five years experience of working with children and youth at Evergreen State College, where they also studied race, gender, and other social justice issues and how they intersect and are portrayed in education and art, as well as youth development and psychology. As a Black, non-binary queer young adult who experienced housing instability throughout their life, Rocky adds a wealth of empathy, passion for enacting change, stellar communication skills, and the ability to train and educate people of a variety of backgrounds in numerous teaching styles to the ACI.



Keleh is a writer with a strong interest in professional communications. He has a passion for the weaving and formation of narrative, especially in service of furthering social justice causes that are near and dear to his heart such as environmentalism, economic justice, racial justice and LGBTQ+ issues.

Meet Our Cohort Facilitator

Michelle is a consultant with more than 20 years of experience working with homelessness services in nonprofits and government, with specific expertise in youth and family homelessness. Michelle has managed multiple local and national homelessness assistance consulting engagements with community organizations and government entities. She currently provides direct technical assistance and coaching to Youth Homelessness Demonstration Programs (YHDP) in communities across the country and has been consulting with A Way Home WA since its inception, helping to develop and support the ACI. Michelle played an instrumental role in developing the Fellowship Cohort program and is currently leading the cohort by providing mentorship and professional development support to the fellows through monthly convenings.

Q: Why is the Fellowship Cohort program important?

Michelle: Having a dedicated space for the fellows to connect with each other on a regular basis, as well as other opportunities outside of the organization to help them gain experience and build a network in their fields of interest is such a valuable step that can often be overlooked in a first job, internship or fellowship program. The intent of this fellowship cohort is to spend time exploring their interests and passions, work on professional development skills that they may not be able to access in the normal course of their day, and to potentially connect with other local and national experts and folks in the field doing this work so that they are able to develop a path for future work and opportunities. 

Q: What about the cohort are you excited about?

Michelle: I am most excited about the opportunity to get to know and spend time with these four amazing young people! They all bring very different ideas, interests, and skills to A Way Home WA. I am looking forward to seeing where they go over the course of this year and, not only what skills I can help them gain, but also for what I will gain from my time with them.

ACI Impact in Spokane

According to Matt Davis, one of the ACI leads in Spokane, in the short time that the Anchor Community Initiative (ACI) has been active, it has made a noticeable impact on the homeless youth and young adult system. One example of this is the formation of the “Yes to Yes” Committee, which has a focus on case conferencing to ensure that young people are not left behind in the system. Through case conferencing, you can see the intentionality of cross-system collaboration to a common goal—moving youth and young adults out of the homeless system and into permanent housing!

Many people think of cross-system collaboration as everyone who works with a young person coming together to communicate and share resources. This is only partially true. 

Cross-systems collaboration also means asking, “who needs to be at the table to help this young person move from experiencing homelessness to being housed?” and not waiting for them to come to the table, but instead bringing the table to them.

The ACI has shifted the paradigm around youth and young adults’ expertise as well. When speaking with him, Matt and many others in Spokane truly believe that youth and young adults with lived experience are the key to understanding the impact of homelessness, the impact of policy change and finding the right solutions that work for ending homelessness. Spokane made the decision to ensure that the voices of those with lived experience are always present in their Built for Zero team as an affirmation of this belief.

Because working with young adults with lived experience has been so impactful, Spokane has started to work with people with lived experience for other subpopulations as well.

According to Matt, Spokane has always had a vision for wanting to do authentic youth and young adult collaboration but has not always had the resources or tools to do so in a way that is consistent and impactful.

Thankfully resources like state ACI Funding, which was recently renewed by Governor Inslee and the legislature, allows for communities to have extra funds dedicated to bringing those with lived experience to the table. 

In Spokane this means ensuring that young people, including those on the Youth Advisory Board, who contribute their time and expertise are always compensated. Other ways that state funding supports Spokane include: 

1. Adding additional resources to the data collection team. By participating in the ACI, achieving quality data and using continuous improvement science to drive reductions in homelessness other populations such as single adults and families are benefitting as well. Spokane has begun work to build By-Name Lists for all populations based on the learnings and tools developed through the ACI.

2. Fully funding the in-reach team. The in-reach team is the first point of contact for youth and young adults already experiencing homelessness in Spokane. The team is made up of a diverse group of members across several systems, including juvenile justice, education, local government, and others. 

The Centralized Diversion Fund (CDF) has also made it so youth and young adults don’t have to participate in systems to get help. Because they don’t have to go through systemic hurdles, young people can get help quickly through the CDF. This allows Spokane to do preventive work to keep young peoples from experiencing homelessness and adding to an already backlogged system. 

The success of the CDF in Spokane for youth and young adults has inspired Spokane County to do their own version of the CDF for other populations at risk of homelessness.

In only three years, the ACI has worked with Spokane to plan and implement some important changes to the structure and resource pool of the homeless youth and young adult system. Because of these changes, Matt Davis and the Spokane team believe that reaching “Yes to Yes” and ending youth and young adult homelessness in Spokane by the end of 2022 is in reach.

My Story: Elsa St. Claire

Hello, my name is Elsa St Clair and I am 24 years old. My journey of homelessness began in
2017 and has been an ongoing battle since I came to Spokane in January 2020 and landed
at Hope House Women’s Shelter, where I stayed there for 5 months. Afterwards, I was able to
move into my current apartment through a Transitional Housing Program called Bridge

A month into staying at Bridge I was asked if I would be interested in participating in a Spokane Youth Advisory Board (YAB) meeting to share my lived experience with
homeless service providers. I knew right away I was on the path to making some big
changes for youth and young adults experiencing housing instability here in Spokane. 

Shortly after I began to attend YAB meetings, I was invited to an Anchor Community Initiative (ACI) Core Team Meeting. I sat in on my first ACI meeting just to listen and learn about what projects they were working on in the city of Spokane. There was a lot of information to absorb. 

In the second ACI Core Team meeting I began to share my input and engage with everyone else– showing what I had to offer to help our city. For me, ACI means helping Spokane’s current and future youth and young adults who are struggling. It also means getting to know community members and connecting with them to dismantle barriers preventing youth from having a roof over their heads. ACI has taken the youth voice seriously in implementing changes in the greater Spokane area and I am proud to be a part of the work taking place.

Education and My Experiences

Currently in my fourth year at Walla Walla University, I’m truly proud of myself for making it this far. Growing up, my family and I lived off social security, food stamps, and section eight housing. So, the fact that I’m going to college to have a career to provide for myself is truly a dream.


I’m the youngest out of four siblings. However, I only grew up around two of my siblings. Among my siblings, I am the first to go to college. Me and my two sibling who I grew up with were raised by a single mother who started, but never finished college. Throughout my college experience, I’ve felt the pressure to complete my degree since my mother didn’t, and there have been various times when the pressure to do well academically has been very stressful. I constantly deal with self-doubt about whether or not I’ll get my four-year degree, but when I apply myself every day, I prove to myself that I can do it.

Most students who attend college have a stable support system to turn to when they need guidance, but for me that’s been a challenge. My mother died of cancer almost seven years ago and she was my everything. Not having her to turn to during this very important transitional and pivotal time in my life is isolating, devastating, and makes me angry to say the least. Now living in the Walla Walla area, I have made connections with people that I can see being in my life for a long time, even after I complete my degree. That includes faculty from the university, friends I’ve made here, as well as people I see as mentors in my life. I’m studying strategic communication at Walla Walla University and I finally know what I want to do as a career. It took three years of college to have peace in knowing that I chose the right major and that I could have a career in something that I’m passionate about.

My long-term goal is to use my degree to change the foster care system from the inside out. Having personally been in the system more than once, I feel strongly about completing college because many youth who exit the system don’t graduate from college with a four-year degree. I want to use my experiences in foster care and in college to be an example for youth who’re currently in foster care, so they know that they have a purpose and that they’re more than their stories. Also, in using my degree, I want to give youth who are in foster care and who’ve aged out of the system the platform to tell their stories any way they want to—the good and the bad.

I believe in the power of owning your story and not allowing society to dictate how you tell it or express it. I’ve proven to myself, time and time again, that I’m resilient, I’ve accomplished and will continue to accomplish great things. I know I will get my four-year degree.


Pandemic Ripples Through Spokane Systems

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. Tyrell is a member of the Spokane Anchor Community Initiative Core Team, and this is his story of how the current public health crisis has affected life and access to services in his community.


In Spokane, due to the COVID-19 pandemic that has been gripping our state, there has been a decrease in the availability of services to youth and young adults experiencing homelessness. Also, due to the stay at home orders forcing providers to limit the work they can do day to day, youth that have need of housing placement have a harder time obtaining the needed resources to get stably housed. Businesses are also not hiring due to the current situation of the stay at home order Governor Inslee has set in place, which has personally affected me as well as I continue to search for employment. This all adds up to people being stuck in between a rock and hard place of no job, no home and no way to get either.

In Spokane, providers have really stepped up to the plate to face this issue and have found ways to ensure that the youth and young adults in our community are safe and securely housed as best as they can in these limiting conditions. This means some have been putting extra time and effort to meet youth where they are and provide those needed services. Many of the resources I know of in my community are limited on what kind of services remain available to use during this pandemic and the ones that are open are currently doing the best they can to meet the needs of our community.

I myself am lucky enough to not be currently homeless, but many of my peers that participate in advocacy groups such as Youth Advisory Board and The Mockingbird Society are not as lucky. This is why right now more than ever our work in the Anchor Community Initiative is vital to reduce the number of youth entering into homelessness and quickly housing the ones who do. As a youth who understands the feeling of not knowing exactly where I might live next, it makes me glad that such work is still happening remotely while we are in quarantine.

As this year keeps moving and we gradually start getting back to functioning normally, I hope that we come out a stronger community and maintain the mindfulness of one another. I have hope that we will be closer and more compassionate to each member of our community.

When a Routine Changes

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. Jada is a member of the Yakima Anchor Community Initiative Core Team, and this is her story of how the current public health crisis has affected life and access to services in her community.

Being a single mom can be hard. Going to school online while parenting is a challenge. So is staying on top your health. What happens when a routine changes? Things get disorganized and for a while it seems like life is upside down. In 2016 I experienced homelessness for many different reasons. At that time, I lived in Seattle, WA and had to really dig for resources that were able to support me in my situation. In the following years the cycle repeated itself. I was never “stable or supported” to begin with from the way some organizations had promised. Reentering homelessness, I decided to move back home to Yakima and figure it out from there. As soon as I asked a few questions from the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) and other people in the area, I knew there was enough support to help me stabilize myself the way I was hoping for from the start.

COVID-19 has taken its turn on my life. My name is Jada Topps, I currently live in Yakima, WA. I am 20 years old and a parent to a beautiful baby boy that is 7 months old. I am a type one diabetic since the age of four and due to the COVID-19 virus I am currently attending four classes online at Yakima Valley College.

Before COVID, I was attending weekly meetings with my case managers from Catholic Charities, Rod’s House, Life Choices, and my advisor for school. As the result of an accident, I was going to the chiropractor and taking my son to his follow up appointments as well. Our routine was perfect. Sometimes things were complicated, but life was smooth, and I felt supported.

As of today, because of the pandemic I am no longer able to attend my weekly meetings with some of my case managers. Rod’s House is closed, so I cannot get the same type of help that was provided before. That includes helping me with my power bill, phone bill, rent, laundry access, toiletries so I can save more money for the other essentials I need such as food.

Catholic Charities is not able to assist me right now with the goals that I have been working on. This is important because I feel like with my goals, it is easier for me to visualize if I am being held accountable. Showing up sometimes is the best way to ensure I stick to my own commitments, but they are doing weekly scheduled phone calls to ensure we aren’t losing our motivation to stay housed. Life Choices is still distributing care via curbside pickup if you call ahead for free diapers, baby cereals, and wipes.

All the routine disruption makes it hard to not reenter the state of mind that “nothing is going how it should or how fast I would like it to, so I might as well give up.” But I feel the love and support that is shared between these organizations, and because of their drive and motivation to push me forward and see me be successful I will keep fighting to win, in EVERYTHING I do.

How System Level Crisis Has Affected Youth And Young Adults In Pierce County

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. Brianna is a member of the Pierce Anchor Community Initiative Core Team, and this is her story of how the current public health crisis has affected life and access to services in her community.

Across the globe, COVID-19 has caused complete chaos. People are losing their jobs, family members, and overall security. According to an article written by Time Magazine, the economy has fallen so hard that we have officially got the Great Depression beat. While a stimulus and unemployment boost have been implemented, we still leave out some of our most vulnerable populations: youth, young adults, people of color (POC), and those affected by housing instability. COVID did not create these problems, but only exacerbated the problems of broken systems.


On March 11th, Washington State schools were ordered to close. As the beginning of bad things, this broke me. High school was my safe place – a place where I could get breakfast and lunch, charge my phone, and access the internet. Fortunately, within days the districts were able to arrange for students to receive free lunches. Schools and local organizations have stepped up to help provide internet access and tablets for distance learning, yet many youths are still struggling to receive and keep these supports. Colleges closed campus and evicted everyone from the dorms – leaving refugees, immigrants, and the houseless with nowhere to go. According to an article published by CNN Child Protective Services (CPS) reports have dropped by over 50%. That means more youth are not being advocated for and are possibly stuck with their abusers.

On March 18th, Governor Inslee announced a moratorium on evictions for residential tenants. Unfortunately, this only helped a few. If the pandemic had happened 3 years ago, I would have lost my home again, as I was relying on friends for housing support and wouldn’t have been protected under an eviction moratorium. This is a problem for a lot of youth and young adults. According to a study published by Harvard, when it comes to householders under the age of 25, 78% are renters. Now that the moratorium has been extended through August 1, provisions have been added to protect tenants from late fees, but it still does not offer permanent relief or protections for people who are couch surfing.

On March 24th, Governor Inslee announced the “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order that left nearly half a million folx unemployed state-wide. As youth struggle to stay “essential” and healthy, we are forced to battle an unemployment system that was not designed for us. While a few barriers have been relaxed due to the pandemic, it is still almost impossible to get benefits as a youth. Between the week wait times, proof of identity, and emotional labor required to access benefits, many are being left behind.

On April 11th, the IRS started depositing stimulus checks. Under the CARES Act, Americans who filed taxes in either 2018 or 2019 and made under $75k annually were to receive a one-time payment of $1,200 to help people get by and stimulate the economy. This, unfortunately, leaves out youth who have/are not able to file their taxes, undocumented or DACA residents, and even Americans who are married to an undocumented immigrant. Not to mention the requirement of having a bank account and/or reliable home address has left many houseless without a way to receive a check. Although the new proposal for a second payment, the HEROES Act, would include youth ages 16 to 18, it has already been noted by NBC News that this will likely not pass and our young adults are still going without equal supports to survive this hardship.

Meanwhile, foster youth have been especially hurt. Currently there are no protections for youth aging out of foster/extended foster care – which leaves a lot of youth to exit directly into homelessness. Visitations have been suspended with little support given to ensure visits can still happen virtually. There are talks of things being in the works, but youth need support now.

If this pandemic has shown us youth anything, it is that the systems designed to serve the people are not designed to serve youth.