Homelessness among young people in Seattle is growing at an alarming rate, so a $7.7 million grant will go a long way to helping two local nonprofits — YouthCare and ROOTS — continue to provide emergency services and other programs aimed at getting kids permanently off the streets.

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Melinda Giovengo can trace everything back to Sept. 15, 2008: That’s the day Lehman Brothers filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, sparking a worldwide financial meltdown.

Since the collapse of the financial markets, Giovengo — the executive director of YouthCare, a Seattle nonprofit that provides emergency services, transitional housing, educational opportunities and employment training to homeless youth — has seen a 63 percent spike in the number of street kids looking for help.

“We’ve had young people walk through our doors and literally say, ‘My family can’t afford me any more.’ And these are kids we typically wouldn’t have seen before,” Giovengo said.

Last year, 3,337 homeless youth received services from YouthCare, up from 2,057 in 2008, but doesn’t include all the kids turned away because YouthCare’s funding couldn’t keep up with demand.

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On Thursday, YouthCare and one of its community partners, ROOTS, announced a much-needed cash injection. The Seattle-based Raynier Institute & Foundation awarded the two agencies a $7.7 million grant, money that’s already being used to provide shelter beds and a unique housing program to help kids kick drugs while looking for work or getting back into school.

The money is actually four grants in one, and is aimed at filling gaps in existing services.

“The unfortunate news is there are gaps in services everywhere,” said Jeff Hauser, the Raynier Foundation’s executive director.

The foundation is named for James Widener Ray, a Seattle multimillionaire who died in 2005 and wanted his entire $82 million estate to go to charitable causes.

Over the years, his foundation has awarded grants to numerous arts and cultural organizations, including $1 million to Experience Music Project.

But Ray, who was bipolar and battled drug addiction, also wanted his money to help young people struggling with the same problems he faced.

His name has already been added to the sign outside YouthCare’s 10,000-square-foot facility on a triangle of land at the foot of Capitol Hill. The James W. Ray Orion Center is YouthCare’s flagship site, where street youths, ages 12 to 24, can drop in for meals and showers — and enroll in a multitude of programs aimed at getting them off the streets permanently.

Some $2 million of the grant money is going to ROOTS (an acronym for Rising Out Of The Shadows), an emergency shelter for homeless youth in Seattle’s University District.

The bulk of that, $1.5 million, is for operating expenses to keep the shelter open the next 10 years. The rest is for improving ROOTS’ existing building or helping the organization move to another site.

YouthCare received the lion’s share of the grant, $5.5 million. Of that, $2.1 million will be used to pay off the mortgage on the Orion Center.

Another $2.1 million is for a pilot program that began last March to provide around-the-clock supervision and support to a dozen homeless youth — most suffering from untreated addictions or mental illnesses — at a home in Seattle’s Ravenna neighborhood.

The rest of the funds, $1.5 million, are being used to offer a 15-bed, emergency shelter that opened at the Orion Center last Friday and has been full each night since.

Though official counts put the number of homeless youth in King County at approximately 400 on any given night, Giovengo and other youth advocates think the number is closer to 2,000, when you count kids who are couch surfing or sleeping on friends’ floors.

The longer young people are on the streets, the greater their chances of becoming chronically homeless adults. That is why YouthCare steps in and does everything a parent should, from providing the basics — food, clothing and shelter — to helping kids find jobs, finish high school and apply to college.

“We need to intercept young people early so they don’t become attached to the streets,” Giovengo said.

The growing need that Giovengo first noticed in late 2008 shows no signs of slowing: YouthCare served 1,511 meals last month, up from 997 in January 2009.

During the first month of this year, 429 individuals used the Orion Center’s drop-in center, up from 339 the previous January. And street outreach workers contacted 1,182 homeless youths in Seattle last month, compared with 747 in January 2009.

Jeremy DePriest, 23, and Kevin McMillen Jr., 22, made it into YouthCare’s barista-training program, which has eight places for each eight-week training session it offers.

There were more than 50 youths on a waiting list to get into the class DePriest and McMillen began two weeks ago.

The two young men — like participants in all of YouthCare’s programs — are paid minimum wage for their time.

DePriest, originally from Michigan, left home at 17. “It was bad,” was all he’d say of his childhood.

His stepfather was abusive and alcoholic. Asked about his relationship with his mom, DePriest shrugged and said, “I don’t really have one.”

He traveled around before landing in Seattle, where he got addicted to meth and slept under bridges before another street kid told him about YouthCare. He is now living in a transition home and is enrolled to start community college in the spring.

“It saved my life,” DePriest said of the nonprofit.

McMillen, from Youngstown, Ohio, came to Seattle in fall 2008 to attend art college, but the financial aid he was promised quickly fell through. He opted to stay here instead of returning home.

“My parents are excellent people but they’re terrible parents. My childhood was rough and it really sucked,” said McMillen, who is sleeping on a friend’s floor on Capitol Hill.

“I just recently found out about this place; I struggled for so long before I knew help was available.”

Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or sgreen@seattletimes.com

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