Meet Our Community Engagement Coordinator!

For the past nine years, I’ve been working to end youth and young adult homelessness in different capacities. I’ve worked in advocacy, direct services and creating partnerships. From all these experiences, I’ve learned that to transform systems, we need to listen and bring people together.

Deonate with The Mockingbird Society Engagement Coordinators and Chapter Leaders

I started my work in this field at The Mockingbird Society, where I started to see how system-level change requires multiple parties to push for reform. It became apparent that everyone who interacts with the system is part of the solution – from young people to legislators to funders to social services staff. In my six-and-a-half years at Mockingbird, I had the opportunity to interact with people in all these roles and help rally them around our mission.

When I moved into a direct service role at the Accelerator YMCA, I saw firsthand how young people’s insights and expertise can help shape effective programs. My job was to connect young adults ages 18-24 with flexible diversion funds that could support their housing needs and keep them from experiencing homelessness. We held focus groups with young people to gather their feedback on the program, leading to adjustments to make the program more effective at meeting their needs.

Right before joining the A Way Home Washington team, I worked at YouthCare, where I helped connect service providers throughout King County with the juvenile court system. Working closely with the system, I gained perspective into how partnerships between systems and service providers can help ensure better outcomes for young people.

During these nine years, I’ve heard organizations speak about changing the system countless times. And I agree – we do need change! But my mental picture of the system has changed over the years. It’s transformed from a monolithic, singular entity in my mind to a composite of the multiple individuals that comprise the system. And this shift has made the prospect of changing the system less intimidating – it’s not about moving one giant colossus, but rather about unifying the individuals that make up the system to work together.

Changing the system means unifying legislators around policy that will result in better outcomes for young people. Listening to young people and making changes so they can navigate services more easily. Making investments so that service providers can more easily do their work and support young people. And it means constantly asking ourselves who is missing from the table.

As Community Engagement Coordinator, my work will center on building a table that prioritizes those most impacted by youth and young adult homelessness. That means communities of color. The LGBTQ+ community. Young people with lived experience and alumni. Everyone at A Way Home Washington is accountable for ensuring that these voices always guide our work, and through this position we have the added capacity to work on these relationships intentionally and continuously.

To ensure that our work leads to everlasting and equitable change, we’re going to need the perspective of all parties involved in systems that serve young people. We’ll need to think critically about who needs to be included in these conversations and processes. This is one of the reasons I’m excited to be part of the A Way Home Washington team. If we’re going to do this right, then everyone involved needs to have a voice in this process.

What Trauma-Informed Practice Means to Us

At A Way Home Washington, our core values include equity, youth partnership, a data-driven culture and trauma-informed practice. Our Coaching and Improvement Manager, Ashley, writes about how trauma informs our work at A Way Home Washington.

“When you get housed, staff is constantly hounding you to get a job and make the rent. When I was on the streets I couldn’t break down and fall apart, I had to stay strong every second. Now I’m in housing and feel safe for the first time in years, and I just need to lock myself in my room and feel my feelings. But no, they kick you out for that.”

This is how one young person described their experience in housing programs to me when I worked at The Mockingbird Society. I got to work closely with young people who exited homelessness into housing programs, and I heard stories of young people who were continually kicked out of shelter and housing. One lost their housing for three days after they returned smelling like weed. Another asked for a night away to attend their dad’s wedding, had their request denied and then got kicked out for going anyway. Yet another was asked to leave for being behind on their “productive hours.”

Trauma is ubiquitous and ongoing for young people experiencing homelessness. Young people of color and LGBTQ+ young folks must also survive racism, homophobia and transphobia while experiencing trauma. Feeling unsafe for long periods of time causes people to stay in a state of hypervigilance, or what young people call ‘survival mode’. They need to constantly watch their backs and focus on surviving the next night, so situations that may not feel threatening to a person who has not experienced trauma may lead to bigger reactions than housing program staff expect.

These are extremely difficult experiences, and young people are not healed the second they get housed. They can’t just switch off from survival mode immediately. Yet our programs and services are constructed as if they could. We want young people working, paying rent and being “productive” as soon as possible once they’re housed. We aren’t prepared to respond to young people’s reactions when they’re still living in survival mode. We expect them to live inside, often in group settings, with no peer conflict and with totally new coping mechanisms.

A system designed to serve young people wouldn’t result in so much cycling through programs. The fact that young people are able to navigate these systems that weren’t designed with their needs in mind is a testament to their resilience. In many cases, young people are relying on their own strength to survive and thrive despite of the system, not because of it.   

The Adolescent Health Working Group provider toolkit on trauma is a helpful resource

We need to transform the system and stop treating young people like their trauma will abruptly end the second they’re housed. On the individual level, we need to work with young people in ways that take their traumatic experiences into account, and we need to recognize their trauma responses for what they are. At a societal level, we need to dismantle toxic systems, policies and practices that create environments primed for trauma.

At A Way Home Washington, we are committed to transforming our statewide system in partnership with young people themselves. We need a system that sees each young person as whole, capable, smart and deserving. We want to address the root causes of homelessness and trauma to create a Yes to Yes system with the capacity to support each young person in the way each young person needs to be supported.

Recently, I attended a Learning Session hosted by Community Solutions. During one of the workshops, the facilitator asked participants to list the barriers to housing people may experience. The answers were familiar: No job. Refuses housing. Mental illness. And then, the facilitator asked us to change the way we think about these barriers. Instead of seeing these characteristics as barriers that keep people from being housed, we should think about the barriers our systems put up to keep people with these characteristics from being housed.

The Anchor Community Initiative is working to actively identify the barriers keeping their local systems from being responsive to young people. Communities then address these barriers through coaching and support from experts. If a barrier is too big for a single community to solve, we work in partnership with the Office of Homeless Youth to advocate for policy and funding changes at the state level. Through this approach, we know that we’ll be able to build trauma-informed Yes to Yes systems.

Centering Youth Voice

Youth partnership is critical to ending youth and young adult homelessness, and it is one of our core values at A Way Home Washington. Sierra Phillips is one of our youth partnership consultants, and she shares how she has seen this work make an impact on youth and young adult engagement.

Adultism training. Being unafraid to fail. A high level of community participation. Funding for diversion programs. Accountability. These are a few of the things our Anchor Communities, Pierce, Walla Walla, Yakima, and Spokane, were proud of during the recent annual convening. And I am proud of working with an organization that consistently incorporates these values into the work we do.

Sierra presenting at the convening

I’ve been working as a consultant with A Way Home Washington for the past 8 months, and I’ve been helping the Anchor Community Initiative team make sure that youth and young adults are centered in activities like the annual convening. In preparation for the event, I was able to sit down with the team that works on the initiative every day, and with members of the local teams like Carla, an amazing young person from Walla Walla. Through this preparation, I gained the contextual knowledge I needed to make sure my recommendations helped the team come closer to their goal of centering young people in all activities.

The annual convening was a lot of fun. On the day of the event, I got the chance to connect with and meet some rad people, including the young people who are part of each community’s team. I learned what each community was doing and how their goals would impact their future work. And because we were intentional about creating a space where young people’s voices are heard, I believe this event helped each community better understand why youth and young adult engagement is so important in this work.  

I am encouraged to see that youth and young adult engagement is central to A Way Home Washington’s work, and that I continue to be consulted for my expertise on this topic. Over the past months, I’ve been called in to assist with interview panels for staff hiring at A Way Home Washington and work planning sessions for the Anchor Community Initiative.

I hope my future includes more of this work. It is because of A Way Home Washington and other similar agencies that I believe I am more than my story. I don’t have to sit on a stage and be paraded around as “the homeless person.” I am strong, I am capable, and I can do whatever I set my mind too. My future hopes and dreams today are much bigger than they previously were. I feel empowered with the knowledge that I do have a voice that matters in this work and I want other young people to feel that way as well.

The Time Is Right for Sustainable Change

Our Executive Director, Jim Theofelis, has dedicated his life to helping young people, as an advocate, a clinician and a leader in the movement to reform foster care and end youth and young adult homelessness. Previously, Jim shared why the time is right for solutions in Washington and why solutions must lead to systemic and structural change. Today, Jim shares what sustainable change means to him.

When I think about the reasons why I do this work, I think about the 16-year-old experiencing homelessness today. I also think about how this work will help the 5-year-old who doesn’t know that they may be vulnerable to homelessness one day. To me, sustainability means that our work will help young people today, tomorrow and into the future. The systems we help create to serve young people must continue to exist even as time passes, staff changes and organizations change.

I’m inspired by the Haudenosaunee Confederacy’s Seventh Generation value when I think about building a system that will serve young people today and will continue serving young people for years to come. The Haudenosaunee Confederacy is made of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca peoples, whose Constitution influenced the very Constitution we follow today. Their Seventh Generation value states that for any decision we make, we must consider the impact it will have today and for generations into the future.   

We need to adopt this same perspective in our work. We need to think about how our decisions will not just impact the lives of young people and families accessing resources today, but seven generations from now as well. This means that we need to be honest and truly ask ourselves whether today’s systems were created to serve all young people and families equitably, and acknowledge the ways in which the LGBTQ+ community and people of color have historically been underserved and at times even harmed by public systems.  We cannot forget this history when we make decisions today so we can do better by all families.

In the past few years, I’ve seen hopeful signs that as a state we’ve started to adopt this forward thinking. I worked on and applaud the creation of the Office of Homeless Youth Prevention and Protection Programs (OHY) to carry this work forward at the state level. OHY will continue to award grants, hold state level relationships and advocate for preventing and ending youth and young adult homelessness far into the future. Together, we have advocated for Anchor Community Initiative funding in the state budget, leading to $4 million dedicated to services in communities around Washington.

Jim presents a Mockingbird Youth Leadership award to Ryan Tobiasson, Spokane Mockingbird Chapter and Anchor Community team member

And nothing gives me more hope for the future than seeing more and more organizations realizing that we need young people’s leadership and involvement if we want to create a system that works for them. When I founded The Mockingbird Society, compensating young people for their expertise and input was a new and innovative idea. Now, instances of tokenism and pizza instead of real compensation grow more and more rare, and genuine partnership with young people is becoming the expectation. Young people’s wisdom and experience is increasingly shaping community plans and programs meant to last generations.

I’ve heard many young people and their families say that they need access to resources and support before even entering any systems. We need to look upstream at solutions like diversion and school support to truly help all young people and families. Well-funded and accessible diversion programs can make the difference between keeping stable housing and facing homelessness for families who need these resources. And as the first point of contact for many youth, schools that have the resources and capacity to support young people experiencing homelessness or housing instability have the potential to quickly connect families to services and resources. These types of interventions can help us strengthen families and prevent homelessness.

We can’t stop doing this work until we can answer the question “Who do our systems serve?” with “Everyone.” And once we achieve this goal, we need to make sure we’re prepared to carry this work forward at all levels. We need to do it for the 16-year-old experiencing homelessness today, for the 5-year-old whose future our decisions will impact, and for the next seven generations. That’s what sustainable change really looks like.