On a tree-lined street in downtown Kent in early November, young people set up a room to prepare for the next meeting of “Okay!,” a support group serving LGBTQ+ young people in South King County.
Under a colorful, collaboratively decorated banner reading “LGBTQIA+ ICONS,” they carefully hang pictures of role models like Megan Rapinoe and Janelle Monáe on a wall, along with descriptions of what makes the icons important to them.
This room is more than meets the eye. Its four walls create a sanctuary for the five to 10 teens and young adults who gather each week at Kent Youth and Family Services. The agency is one of 13 nonprofits benefiting from readers’ donations to The Seattle Times Fund for Those in Need.
One of the youths setting up the room has participated in the group since its first meeting, four years ago. The first two years of high school were rough for Axel (who asked to use just his first name due to privacy concerns). Now 20, he said he was bullied in school and outed as bisexual. He became more withdrawn and he struggled with his mental health.
The group was a balm. “I found the Okay! group and kind of just clung to that as my, ‘it’s OK to be who I am, there’s other kids like me’ kind of thing.”
A couple of weeks after joining the group, Axel said, he began to get out of his shell. He began to realize that despite his experiences in high school in Kent, he was not alone and he could always come to the group for support. The need for social connection became even more acute for group members as the pandemic kept people isolated.
The hardships of the pandemic across society — job losses, economic pain, housing instability, shuttered schools — have created long-lasting ripple effects. And less-visible impacts, such as on mental health, are just now coming into focus.
The annual Fund for Those in Need campaign, now in its 43rd year, kicks off at an acutely challenging time for local nonprofits.
The holiday season campaign has raised over $30 million for Puget Sound nonprofit agencies serving a range of needs in the community, from caring for domestic violence survivors, youth in foster care, older adults and immigrants and refugees. The goal for the 2021-22 campaign is $3 million.
Seattle Times President Alan Fisco said the need this year is critical. “The past year has been challenging for all of us, doubly so for The Seattle Times’ Fund for Those in Need agencies,” Fisco said. “Our participating agencies always struggle to meet ever-growing needs, especially now. Last year’s community generosity was amazing. I ask all our readers to help again with their financial support. Every penny contributed goes directly to serving those in need during these exceptional times.”
Adapting to needs
The pandemic’s impact on adolescent and child mental health is core to the work of Youth Eastside Services, another recipient of the Fund for Those in Need.
David Downing, the CEO of YES, said adaptation has been the key to meeting the mental health needs of the children and young people they serve. YES provides support for mental health and substance-use disorder from birth to age 22 in East King County.
When it became clear the pandemic was going to be a long-term challenge, the agency pivoted. YES quickly moved its in-person mental health care online, and later opened on-site options in empty schools for children to access. Now the agency has embraced a hybrid telehealth and in-person model that it will keep to allow its clients better access to the mental health care they need.
Downing said the pandemic only exacerbated a growing need for mental health services. “Going into the pandemic — for really the past decade-plus — there already had been this really significant rise and increase in … mental health and substance use issues amongst young people,” he said. “The number of kids talking about that they’ve actually made a suicide attempt, or had suicidal feelings, all of those markers are significantly up. And we simply are losing more young people to both suicide and drug overdose.”
And now in the pandemic, some of the trends mental health care providers see are even more dire. Last summer, state health and education officials shared a preliminary report that indicated nearly 60% of state high schoolers and nearly half of middle schoolers were sad and depressed most days during the pandemic. Between 8% and 10% reported feeling no hope for the future. In April, Seattle Children’s hospital reported seeing 170 children and adolescents for psychiatric emergencies — up from 50 a week pre-pandemic. In 2020, Washington was ranked 43rd in national youth mental health by Mental Health America.
“The numbers that are in need are going to just continue to be greater,” Downing said. “And the system does not have enough workforce, and it doesn’t have enough financial resources to respond to what that need is. We need a way [to provide mental health care] that has more immediacy to it, we need there to be no waitlist, we need there to be no barriers around finances for kids to access help.”
Jaimie Lyon, a Kent Youth and Family Services youth and art therapist and co-leader of the Okay! group, sees this need with the young people she works with. She said groups like Okay! provide a safe place to be validated and accepted in a world that often doesn’t do either.
“What [young people] need is to have faith that they can trust themselves. Because if they can trust themselves, then they can find their way and they can find their community. But when there’s that doubt that they can’t trust themselves, I think that creates a lot of internal struggle. And that’s where we see a lot of depression and anxiety coming out, is feeling that lack of acceptance, and that lack of trust.”
Group participant Beetle Howe, 18, said that before he started attending Okay! he was anxious, depressed and never wanted to see people. Once he started attending the group, around three months ago, he started to feel more confident and made friends. He said for people like him, who don’t have a lot of support, the group can be a lifeline.
“It’s wonderful for getting away from people in your life who may not be supportive or you may not feel safe around. You can always go there,” Howe said.
Axel, now one of the older members of the group, grew to provide a mentorship role to the younger members. “I don’t need that group to save me anymore. But there are kids that do,” he said.
Fund for Those in Need recipient Wellspring Family Services has had to redouble its efforts to support the basic needs of families through the pandemic and beyond.
The agency’s mission — “to end family homelessness for good” — has been tested mightily these nearly two years.
CEO Heather Fitzpatrick said Seattle-based Wellspring has seen demand for its services “skyrocket.”
“Families have really been hit from all angles with the pandemic,” Fitzpatrick said. The low-income families the agency serves were more likely to be let go from their jobs or be furloughed, less likely to be able to work remotely and more likely to lack child care, Fitzpatrick said. All of these factors make families more vulnerable to housing insecurity and homelessness.
Fitzpatrick said that with all the discussion about homelessness, family homelessness is often invisible.
She estimates that 70% of families experiencing homelessness are couch surfing or doubling up — sharing someone else’s home — so they are undercounted in tallies like the one-night count of unhoused people on the street.
Fitzpatrick said for families, lack of financial or family resources can drive homelessness.
“Homelessness is almost always caused by one incident or a couple of small incidences that cause unexpected expenses that are more than they can afford,” she said. “And it is the lack of a social safety net, the lack of people to whom they can turn for funding that tips them from stability and into instability.”
To make long-term change, access to emergency relief funds plus affordable housing, living-wage jobs and affordable and safe child care are key, Fitzpatrick said.
Wellspring client Fatuma Omere knows this instability firsthand. A mother of three, her middle daughter began to have pneumonia and breathing problems when her family lived in South Dakota. They followed a friend to Seattle, hoping the child’s condition would improve. But without resources or other connections, and her husband disabled from an injury, the family ended up living in their car in a Walmart parking lot.
After moving to a shelter — which she said was a traumatic experience for her kids — Omere learned about Wellspring. With support from Wellspring, Omere’s family finally began to achieve stability. The agency’s housing program first helped provide transitional housing and then permanent affordable housing for the family along with access to its Family Store, which provides clothes and other necessities to families at no cost. Two of Omere’s children attended Wellspring’s Early Learning Center, which is a child care center serving children through age 5.
Omere said her family is always treated with respect and care at Wellspring. “They ask you like family if they can do something for you,” she said.
Now, Omere is in training as a certified nursing assistant, after getting into health care initially as a nurse in Ethiopia, where she is from.
Family homelessness is a solvable problem, Fitzpatrick said, and providing security and stability benefits everyone.
“It’s a whole lot less expensive, it’s a whole lot better for children … if we can keep people stable, rather than letting them slip into the trauma that is associated with homelessness.”