I have been on the board of directors of Peace for the Streets by Kids from the Streets since 2007. As reported by The Seattle Times, the shelter is closing at the end of this year. [“‘Canary in the coal mine’: Closure of Seattle young-adult shelter is a warning, providers say“].
Over the years, I have asked countless people to open their hearts, and wallets, to help youth and young adults facing homelessness. Today, I’m sounding the alarm about the crisis of youth homelessness in our community, and our failure to adequately fund the services needed to end that crisis once and for all.
PSKS isn’t closing because its services aren’t needed. PSKS also isn’t closing because its services aren’t working. PSKS is closing despite its success. PSKS’ enhanced shelter model, where young people may stay as long as they need while receiving individualized wraparound services, is a proven model for helping young people experiencing homelessness. The loss of 25 shelter beds and the services that go with them is a tragedy — and there is no immediate plan to replace them. And PSKS is the canary in the coal mine for all agencies serving this population in King County. As the smallest agency, PSKS was simply the most fragile.
I must take issue with the city’s response to the news of PSKS’ closing. A spokesperson was quoted as stating that PSKS did not seek additional funding. But a representative from the city was present at a recent meeting of donors and stakeholders where PSKS made its case for the additional funding that would be required for long-term sustainability.
Further, PSKS and other youth-service providers have asked for adequate funding for years, and we have repeatedly challenged how the city administers these contracts. In just the last two years, PSKS has had several different contract administrators, each with different expectations and requirements. This intransigent bureaucracy and lack of responsiveness has played a prominent role in PSKS’ demise.
The article also noted that PSKS has come close to closing in the past due to dire financial circumstances. Ironically, PSKS is currently in better financial shape than it has been in the past, and it has been very frugal with its resources. PSKS’ administrative staff and board of directors have spent the last year exploring every option to make the agency sustainable in the long term, and we were unable to make it happen — mainly because of how all youth-serving nonprofits are currently funded.
The current funding model of giving a dollar and expecting five dollars in services is not sustainable, and it devalues the young people we serve. A one-size-fits-all approach does not work for these young people, many of whom have never seen what a stable, healthy household looks like. So many of them feel they are being treated as disposable or a nuisance rather than talented, precious humans in crisis through circumstances beyond their control.
The entire youth-serving nonprofit sector is stretched to the breaking point. Public funding does not come close to covering the cost of needed services. Private donors give generously, but it is not enough to fill the gap. The cost of living has become so expensive in King County, yet funding has not kept pace with the increased cost. Service providers struggle to pay their staff anything resembling a living wage, and turnover is high. For too long, youth-service providers have been siloed and in competition with one another for the same government and private funding streams. The crisis is real, and PSKS is the bellwether.
But complaining about the system is not the point of this Op-Ed. The point is to support the service providers whose doors remain open, and to advocate for these amazing young people who need our help to realize their full potential. I challenge everyone to speak up, speak out, and engage with anyone who will listen — including your city and county council members and legislators — about supporting and fully funding vital services for youth and young adults in our community.
And there is also some good news. A dedicated coalition of service providers and stakeholders, including PSKS, is currently working together to identify these challenges, and to form collaborative approaches to serve youth in better and more innovative ways. This coalition, Brave Commitments, was started by former Friends of Youth CEO Terry Pottmeyer. I am hopeful that Brave Commitments can accomplish what service agencies have been unable to achieve on their own.
All youth and young adults in King County deserve the support they need to lead healthy, independent and productive lives. They are literally the future. We cannot afford to fail them.