April 2021: Letter from the Executive Director

The last 12 months have been extremely challenging. So many individuals have been negatively impacted by COVID-19. At the center of A Way Home Washington’s work – preventing and ending youth and young adult homelessness – we have seen increased barriers for young people navigating an already complex system.

In our four Anchor Communities – Spokane, Yakima, Walla Walla and Pierce counties – we see the impact of COVID on young people, socially, mentally, economically and physically. Distancing from loved ones, not being able to attend class in-person, 6-foot restrictions at shelters and many other emerging policies have had a direct impact on young people experiencing homelessness. We also see COVID’s impact on service providers as they continue to carry out their duties with passion and to provide support to YYA experiencing homelessness and housing instability.

Our public systems have been challenged to be flexible and respond quickly to COVID. Because of that, we hope that LGBTQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer+) and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) young people experiencing homelessness are not left to fall through the cracks of these systems.

Even still, we are optimistic about the future. In the Anchor Communities, we are seeing a flood of support from service providers, private philanthropy, and local governments. Youth and young adults continue to show up to Youth Advisory Board (YAB) meetings and Anchor Community Initiative Core Team meetings to provide feedback and input on processes and systemic changes. Our staff have adapted to remote work, and are working hard to assist communities with finding solutions to these complex issues.

We are also encouraged by the news from Olympia – thanks to your advocacy, renewed funding has been secured for the four communities, keeping us on track to reach “functional zero” by the end of next year. It also seems likely that the Anchor Community Initiative will expand to a new cohort of communities, with other counties in the state building upon the resources and lessons learned of the first four.

Because of these efforts, It’s very clear to me that all of us are here and ready to prevent and end youth and young adult homelessness by helping Washington reach a “Yes to Yes” system. 

In closing, I want to share a quote from Azia Ruff, our ACI Coaching and Improvement Coordinator. She has said, “If the system isn’t working for youth and young adults, then the system isn’t working.” These words help center me, and keep all of us focused on why we do this work, as we move further into 2021 and closer to our goal of ending youth homelessness in Washington state. 

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.

Esther

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.

Tyrell

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.

Brianna

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.

The Time is Right for Systemic 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. Today, Jim shares why solutions must lead to systemic change.

By now, I’ve made my optimism for ending youth and young adult homelessness clear – I know the time is right for solutions. I also know that our solutions need to truly serve all young people. This means we cannot ignore issues like systemic racism, intergenerational poverty and discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community. Young people and their allies have been ready for decades to create a new system that dismantles these structural inequities, and I believe we have all the pieces in place to make it happen.

The numbers don’t lie – young people of color and young people who identify as LGBTQ+ disproportionately experience homelessness. Though black youth and young adults represent 4% of the population in Washington state, 24% of youth and young adults experiencing homelessness are black. And nationwide, about 40% of youth and young adults experiencing homelessness identify as LGBTQ+ according to True Colors United.

The truth is, our systems are biased, and they disadvantage and disenfranchise people of color, including youth and young adults. Let’s look at one example: When youth act out in school, the color of their skin can be an indicator of the outcomes they can expect. The same behaviors that get a white young person referred to behavioral health services can mean a disciplinary response, like suspension or even juvenile detention, for a young black person. Systems can put young people of color on a trajectory that ends up in homelessness.

Now, I want to be very clear – this ain’t new. Systemic racism came to our shores centuries ago with the slave ships and the genocide of indigenous peoples. But we do not have to let its ripples continue to rob young people today of the opportunity they deserve. Together, we can stop perpetuating these injustices. We can be innovative and try new solutions that look different from what we’ve done before, solutions that account for each young person’s unique needs.

Systems that were not created with young people of color in mind will not work to keep them safely housed. We need to remember that young people experiencing homelessness are the true experts in preventing and ending youth and young adult homelessness. Rather than trying to fit young people into boxes that aren’t quite right, we need to listen to young people and customize services to fit their needs. For example, if a young person who has experienced trauma says they need someone to take them to their appointments and to spend time with them after each session, that is what we should provide them.

I’ve heard all sorts of criticisms of this type of services – “But that’s just enabling young people,” the naysayers protest! We need to remember that even though young people with lived experience are resilient and strong, they still have the same developmental needs as their peers who live with their families. I’m a high school soccer coach, and I think about the support that my players receive from their families. They have parents who drive them to practice, bring them a snack and water bottle, ask them about their days, have dinner and even dessert waiting for them at home. And that’s what every young person deserves: The support of people who care about them.

Jim is a longtime soccer player and coach, and he decorates his office with a quilt his mother made with jerseys from all his teams

 

Youth and young adults experiencing homelessness are expected to navigate housing, counseling, medical and legal systems all on their own. But handing a young person who is asking for help a list of resources isn’t saying “Yes” to that young person. Instead, we should say “Yes, I will take you to your appointment.” “Yes, we can talk about how difficult this is for you.” “Yes, we can stop for a treat to celebrate your courage and determination.” That is the level of support we need to give every young person, whether they have experienced homelessness or not.

I’ve always said for nearly my entire career that systems and policies don’t change lives – relationships do. We need to create an environment where all young people, and especially young people of color and LGBTQ+ young people, feel safe and can develop healthy relationships. An environment where a young person of color knows that they can ask for help and receive help, not disciplinary action. That’s one of the major changes we need to prevent and end youth and young adult homelessness: Treating ALL young people as if they were our own. Because they are!

The Time Is Right: Washington Is Ready to End Youth and Young Adult Homelessness

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. In this four-part series, Jim shares why he believes Washington state is poised to end youth and young adult homelessness, and what solutions he believes will make the greatest impact. 

During my forty years on the front lines serving youth and young adults, it’s been my stubborn belief in solutions that’s kept me going. I’ve had some sobering moments, like attending the funerals of young people who did not survive the horrors of homelessness, and moments of great hope, like – pardon the repetition – passing the HOPE Act and founding The Mockingbird Society.

The Mockingbird Society Network Representatives Jonathan Hemphill, Avrey Tuttle and Farid Rasuli join Jim to celebrate the 2019 legislative session

 

After all these ups and downs, these past few years launching A Way Home Washington and the Anchor Community Initiative have convinced me that we’re at a unique and promising point in time to end youth and young adult homelessness in Washington. I’ve seen policymakers, service providers, philanthropy, government agencies, business leaders – in short, entire communities – rally around our collective North Star: making sure no young person is forced to sleep outside or in unsafe conditions. And I’ve seen young people’s voices at the center of the movement, advocating for their peers, co-creating initiatives and sharing in decision-making. We’re all on this journey together and ending youth and young adult homelessness is in our reach.

Now, some may say, Jim’s always been a hopeless optimist – he’s not even talking about all the challenges we’re facing! But I’ve learned a thing or two in these forty years, and I know the harsh realities that we’re up against. Cycles of intergenerational poverty keep families from the opportunities and resources they need to provide young people stable homes. Systemic racism pervades every aspect of our society and leads us to fail young people of color, who disproportionately experience homelessness. Discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community leads support networks to turn their backs on LGBTQ+ young people in need.

Yes, these structural issues need to be addressed to create a system where no young person is left without safe, stable housing and a path forward. But these challenges are not new and they’re not unique to Washington state. What is new and unique to Washington state is the widespread commitment to young people from all the key players who need to collaborate on a solution to youth and young adult homelessness. Right now, we have our governor, our legislature, philanthropy and communities around the state aligned around our North Star. Most importantly,  young people with lived experience of homelessness are at the table as decision makers and leaders. These courageous young people are advocating for themselves, their peers and the young children who don’t even know they may one day face homelessness.

I believe in solutions that create systemic, structural and sustainable change. I have every reason to believe that we are rising to the occasion and pursuing these solutions. Over my next few posts, I’ll explain what it means for a solution to create systemic, structural and sustainable change, and share some examples I see of solutions that meet these criteria. Until then, I hope I’ve shared at least a little bit of my optimism with you that together, we will end youth and young adult homelessness.

When a plan comes together

By Jim Theofelis
Executive Director, A Way Home Washington

July is shaping up to be one of the biggest months in A Way Home Washington’s brief history. Our team is coming together, and we are pleased to announce the hiring of Elysa Hovard, Anchor Community project director, and Megan Huckaby, communications manager.

Elysa spent the last nine years working with homeless youth, young adults and their families with Cocoon House in Snohomish County. She started her career on the front lines in direct service, eventually obtaining roles in senior management. She will work alongside the entire Anchor Community team to provide the first four communities the support they need to build a “Yes to Yes” system.

“The Anchor Community Initiative is a revolutionary model and I am thrilled to be working to move this campaign forward so that no youth or young adult has to experience homelessness,” she said.

Megan comes to us from a background in newspapers and higher education communications. Before moving to Seattle, she worked as a communication specialist for Purdue University in Indiana. Megan will lead our public relations and media campaign for the Anchor Community Initiative, as well as maintain A Way Home Washington’s social media channels and website.

“I am excited to be working with A Way Home Washington and am looking forward to all that we can accomplish through the Anchor Community Initiative,” she said.

Elysa and Megan are key leaders on our Team and I look forward to working with both on the Anchor Communities. We are in the process of hiring a Data Manager and a Lead Coach and our Anchor Community Team will be complete.

Speaking of the Anchor Community Initiative, we sent out our request for proposals on July 9! The ball is officially rolling, and we look forward to receiving applications from communities that want to be part of the first cohort of four.

If you are interested in applying to be an Anchor Community, or you would like to know more about A Way Home Washington, follow the links below:

In partnership with the Office of Homeless Youth, local communities, service providers, philanthropy and those with “lived experience” we are building a “Yes to Yes” system in Washington state. When young people say “Yes” I want to come inside, local communities have the resources, capacity and resolve to say “Yes, come inside for safe housing and a path forward.” We believe our work will be a national model for other states to prevent and end youth and young adult homelessness. Young people and those who love them are depending on us.

2018 Legislative Session Has Started

January 8th was the start of the 2018 legislative session in Washington. A Way Home Washington (AWHWA) will be a strong leader and an advocate on youth and young adult homelessness in Olympia. We look forward to working with legislators on both sides of the aisle to pass landmark legislation and secure the necessary funding to strengthen families and support young people who are homeless.

The 2018 session is a short one, running just 60 days. In that time period, legislators will face many tough items on their agenda, including passing the capital budget and fully funding public schools. However, we are confident that members will carve out time to consider and pass proposals that will work towards our goal of ending youth homelessness in Washington.

With our partners and the state’s Office of Homeless Youth, we have developed a bold legislative agenda that, if passed, will take substantive steps to help homeless youth across the state. Thanks to the 100-Day Challenges we helped run in Pierce, Spokane, and King Counties, we now have even more on-the-ground knowledge about what it takes to connect youth and young adults to stable housing.

We will continue to update this agenda throughout the course of legislative session. Sign up to receive our newsletter, and please share it widely with your network!

2018 Legislative Agenda

ENSURE THAT ALL YOUTH AND YOUNG ADULTS HAVE A SAFE AND STABLE PLACE TO GO

  • Family in Need of Services (FINS) Petitions: Consolidate and expand existing laws to strengthen families in crisis and make it easier for at-risk youth to acquire temporary shelter while the state evaluates their home living situation.
  • Extended Foster Care (SB 6222 / HB 2330): Expand eligibility so that all 18-21-year-olds have access to safe housing.

STRENGTHEN STATEWIDE SYSTEMS OF CARE

  • Better Data on Youth Homelessness: Allow minors to voluntarily consent to have their data entered into public systems to ensure accurate information that drives the development of policies, services, system evaluation and innovation.

INCREASE FUNDING FOR KEY PROGRAMS THAT SUPPORT HOMELESS YOUTH AND YOUNG ADULTS

  • Family Counseling and Support: Funding for the Office of Homeless Youth to establish programs for families to access counseling and reduce likelihood of runaways and homelessness.
  • Hope Centers, Crisis Residential Centers, and Responsible Living Skills Programs: Increase number of emergency beds across the state.
  • Capital Budget: Pass the capital budget to support projects that serve youth and young adults experiencing homelessness.

All Lead Agenda items support and align with the Office of Homeless Youth’s Strategic Plan.

SUPPORTING AGENDA

  • Commercially Sexually Exploited Children (CSEC): Change state law so that minors can not be charged with the crime of prostitution and create safe and innovative treatment programs.
  • of Children, Youth & Families (DCYF) Implementation: Support the expansion and implementation of the new state department.

A Way Home Washington also supports the legislative agendas of the Washington Coalition for Homeless Youth Advocacy (WACHYA), the Child Welfare Advocacy Coalition (CWAC), and the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance (WLIHA).