The gaps in the youth-shelter system are like missing teeth in the often self-satisfied smile of the progressive Puget Sound.

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The winners of the nightly lottery for a spot in YouthCare’s Seattle shelter for young adults are announced at 6:30 p.m. Winners get to sleep on a mat on the floor.

The unlucky ones, as Kameron Tomlinson often was, can check out a sleeping bag and head to the slab of sidewalk where Denny Way rises above Interstate 5. There, in the shadow of high-tech offices, a pop-up community of homeless kids forms on the concrete.

Most carry some type of weapon, just in case. “If a dog barks, or you hear something, you grab the weapon, you are on your feet, ready to go,” said Tomlinson, who spent a year staying — or trying to stay — at YouthCare’s shelter while attending massage school. “You don’t sleep much.”

The gaps in the youth-shelter system are like missing teeth in the often self-satisfied smile of the progressive Puget Sound area.

Young and homeless

Editor's note: Editorial writer Jonathan Martin spent several weeks looking at youth homelessness from all angles, traveling in-state and out to talk with kids, parents, foster parents, social workers, state officials and lawmakers. A series of editorials have addressed Martin's findings and appeared alongside columns and guest commentaries addressing this issue.

Video: What would have helped you?

Meet six young people from The Mockingbird Society talk about their experiences being homeless and what helped them get off the streets.


Connecticut shows there are better alternatives to juvenile detention

Host homes provide a sense of belonging for homeless youths

Homeless youths left to chance

State needs to divert resources for jailing homeless youths to prevention

Children on the streets slipping through the cracks

State has misplaced priorities on vulnerable teens

The story of one homeless girl, Brittany, who was failed time and time again


Editor's note: Embracing the state's young and homeless

Jonathan Martin: Homeless youths, their trackers, running around in circles

Jonathan Martin: A grass-roots solution for homeless kids, mowed down by the state


A call to action: LGBTQ teens need shelter, wraparound services

Is it ever OK to lock up runaway kids? Public officials weigh in

Trudi Inslee: The immediate dangers facing children living on the street

Nobody wants to put runaways in detention — but what do we do?

Young, gay and homeless: Why some parents reject their children

Support for this series

Reporting for this project was made possible with financial support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a private, national philanthropic organization that aims to better futures for disadvantaged children in the U.S. The work was done and directed independently of the foundation.

Reddit chat

Jonathan Martin and Megan Gibbard of All Home King County talked about youth homelessness during a recent "Ask Me Anything" Live chat on Reddit.

King County’s rebranded Committee to End Homelessness — now called All Home — pledges to end youth homelessness by 2020. But as a region, and a state, we have a long way to go.

At the state level, the Legislature has retreated from its obligation to shelter homeless youths and young adults. The very small number of state-funded youth-shelter beds has fallen nearly by half — to 23 statewide — since 2008, even though the beds in Seattle and Everett are constantly full.

Pierce County has no shelter beds for kids under 18, forcing them to find a way up to Seattle if they want to sleep in one. A new emergency shelter for young adults just opened, but the shelter for those under 18 won’t open until next year.

In South King County, where many lower-income people are moving as Seattle gentrifies, the only shelter beds for kids under 18 closed last year. A boy recently walked across the south part of the county, his clothes in a plastic bag, only to find the shelter closed, said Sarah Christiansen, residential manager for Auburn Youth Resources.

Countywide, the gap between need and housing resources for homeless youths and young adults can be boiled down to a simple number: 464. That is the waiting list, as of mid-December, for the 313 spots in transitional and stable housing programs for youths and young adults. Wait times stretch for up to six months under a new countywide admissions system that triages demand.

It is a shocking number, said Megan Gibbard, the youth housing director for All Home. “It is also a number that we can do something about.”

The plan to end homelessness for youths and young adults in King County pins its hopes on a variety of alternatives to traditional shelters and transitional housing. Federal funding is expected for 70 rapid rehousing vouchers, which would give youths and young adults money to rent their own apartments. The county is also working on starting up host homes, which are not yet fully embraced by DSHS.

Those will help. But the image of youths like Tomlinson clutching a knife as they sleep on the sidewalk should electrify our community to end youth homelessness well before 2020.