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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Our Anchor Communities have been making amazing progress to end youth and young adult homelessness, with one community reaching quality real-time data, and three out of four communities have completed the By-Name List Scorecard. It feels like the perfect time to highlight what’s next for A Way Home Washington and the Anchor Community Initiative.
As a refresher, the Anchor Community Initiative is based on the Built for Zero model, which has four phases. The first phase requires communities to achieve quality, real-time data. This has already been achieved by Pierce County, while Walla Walla and Yakima County are only a couple months away. The second phase is reducing. At this point, communities begin to implement improvement projects and use quality real-time data to evaluate the success of these projects.
So, what does reducing mean for to the Anchor Community Initiative? At a high-level, it means lowering the number of young people experiencing homelessness across the entire system. To start this process, our Data and Evaluation Director, Liz, has created different focus areas, or reducing process measures. Communities set goals around any of the following focus areas to start seeing reductions in their homeless numbers:
1. Lowering the number of unsheltered young people
2. Increasing the number of housing placements
3. Lowering returns from housing into homelessness
4. Lowering the average length of time young people experience homelessness
Pierce County is the first community to set a goal around one of these measures: They will focus on increasing housing placements by 30% by August 2020. As communities begin reporting race/ethnicity data and sexual orientation, gender expression and identity (SOGIE) data, they will be able to further refine their goals by adding an equity component. For example, if a community’s data shows that Black young people are housed at a lower rate than young people of other ethnicities, the community can set a goal around increasing housing placements for this population.
Communities will have access to a new tool to boost their reduction efforts: The Centralized Diversion Fund. Starting in July 2020, these flexible funds will be accessible to young people through local service providers to support them with costs like short-term rental assistance, move-in costs, and more. This will help young people stay housed and reduce the number of young people coming into the homeless system.
Youth and young adult engagement is a staple of the Anchor Community Initiative. Communities have laid the groundwork, and now they will continue to build towards the Gold Standard for youth and young adult engagement. Young people will be treated as experts and leaders in the work. This means that young people will be part of hiring, strategy development, and project implementation during this phase of the work, including choosing at least two reduction improvement projects.
Throughout all this work, we will capture best practices and successes in each community to share with other Anchor Communities and aid them in their processes. After reducing, the third phase of the work is ending youth and young adult homelessness. This means communities will create a Yes to Yes system where they have the capacity to support every young person who needs help and achieve equitable outcomes for young people of color and LGBTQ+ young people. We’re working hard to help communities end youth and young adult homelessness by the end of 2022 and sustain their achievement for generations to come!
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.
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.
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.
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.