Seattle recently opened a navigation center for homeless adults with individual rooms, case management and 24/7 access. Young homeless people need a navigation center, too.
Tarps along the road and tents poking under the freeway have become an ubiquitous sight in Seattle. As homelessness becomes more visible, so, too, does a false narrative about its cause: People experiencing homelessness choose to live outside rather than accept shelter indoors.
YouthCare — the organization I’ve led for the past 11 years — has been serving homeless and unstably housed young people since 1974. Let me set the record straight: Homeless youth are not sleeping outside by choice. As rain turns to ice, nobody wants to sleep in the cold. So, why are young people outside?
First, we know from both the city’s homelessness needs assessment and King County’s Count Us In report that the majority of people living outside would move into safe and affordable housing if offered. Ask young people living on the streets if they want a safe place to call home, and you’ll get an unequivocal yes. The problem is that there is only one housing slot available for every three young people experiencing homelessness in King County.
But there’s also an important distinction to make between stable housing and emergency shelter. Housing offers consistency: a place where someone can keep their belongings or share space with their pets or friend. Housing enables autonomy and honors humanity.
Shelter, on the other hand, is impermanent. It often means laying a mat down on a floor in a room full of strangers. Some nights, you’ll get a space. Others, you won’t. Regardless, you’ll have to be up at the crack of dawn to gather your things and face the outdoors. Shelter provides protection from the elements and predatory influences — but it is not a home.
Just because youth are sleeping outside doesn’t mean they prefer to live there. That’s a false dichotomy. It means they were put in the impossible situation of choosing themselves over their family. Or abandoning their partner, because there’s no couples’ shelter. Or their dog, because there’s no place for pets. We present a “choice” for those experiencing homelessness that most of us would refuse to accept: give up our possessions, personal agency and sense of belonging.
Finally, let us not forget the factors that lead to disproportionate rates of youth homelessness. A third of homeless young people have been in foster care. Almost half have had some experience with the juvenile justice system. Over half are youth of color and/or LGBTQ. Many have been betrayed by the very adults in their lives meant to protect them. We often ask young people to put their faith in the same systems that have failed them. Without putting in the time to build a trusting relationship, why should they believe us?
YouthCare’s outreach team has been successful at connecting with young people living on the streets and getting them into housing. But we have a 4 percent rental vacancy rate in this city, and a person needs to work 87 hours a week making minimum wage to afford a one-bedroom apartment in King County. All the outreach in the world won’t address the dire need for more affordable housing.
In the meantime, we need 24/7 shelter that is youth-centered and easy to access. The city recently opened a navigation center for homeless adults with individual rooms, case management and 24/7 access. Young people need a navigation center, too — one that honors their needs, maintains their agency and truly meets them where they’re at.
What keeps me going at YouthCare is the tremendous power and resilience of young people. Every day, I see transformations that take my breath away. All too often, assumptions are projected onto the faces of those sleeping on our streets that undermine that hope and power. Assumptions that people are outside by some fault or choice of their own. The issue of shelter may be complex, but one thing is clear: No young person wants to be homeless.