Former Chief Seattle Club executive director and mayoral candidate Colleen Echohawk has assumed the role of interim CEO at YouthCare, one of King County’s largest homeless services organizations, following a period of internal turmoil over allegations of racism at the nonprofit.
Echohawk, who said she will likely stay at the organization between six and nine months as it finds a permanent CEO, said that she saw a “deep desire” from YouthCare’s board and executive staff that the nonprofit “becomes known for being an anti-racist organization.”
“I plan on spending as much time as a I can hearing from the employees, hearing from the youth, hearing what happened, what the pain was, and offer opportunities for the teams who were expressing their distrust or mistrust of the organization, giving them an opportunity to lead us forward,” Echohawk said.
Echohawk, an enrolled member of the Kithehaki Band of the Pawnee Nation, left her role at Chief Seattle Club in May to focus on her mayoral campaign, and made tackling homelessness a central part of her platform. She failed to advance to the general election this November, leaving a race that will pit Seattle City Council president M. Lorena González against former City Council president and interim Mayor Bruce Harrell at a time when voters’ frustrations with the city over visible homelessness are running high.
Melinda Giovengo, YouthCare’s former longtime president and CEO, announced her departure from the organization and her acceptance of a fellowship at Harvard University to study youth homelessness in July, after protesters and staff pushed for her ouster. Several staff members called for Giovengo to step down after a video circulated on social media of Giovengo appearing to record or photograph immigrant youth activists who surrounded her car while protesting at a YouthCare-run facility paid for by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement to house undocumented, unaccompanied youth.
According to YouthCare and Giovengo, a neighbor and a security guard called the police, who later showed up on the scene. Seattle police said they would not identify who placed the 911 call.
In a petition sent to YouthCare’s board of directors two weeks later, current and former staff alleged that “the way Melinda responded to the unaccompanied and undocumented youth organizers was unsurprising to those of us who have been witnessing and/or on the receiving end of racist, harmful, abusive, defensive and dismissive behaviors from Melinda internally for years.”
Other staff members criticized protesters’ decision to show up at a location where undocumented youth were staying and defended Giovengo’s work on youth homelessness.
“I think that there is a lot of room in our homelessness system, including YouthCare, to address some of the systemic racism that is inherent as part of what our country’s gone through and what our city has gone through,” Echohawk said. “I look forward to helping bring some closure, to help bring in systems and new ways to embrace an anti-racist philosophy, an anti-racist lens and system.”
Echohawk also said that the organization would be analyzing its salary structure at a time when low pay, burnout, turnover and a staffing crisis are gripping the homeless services industry.
Echohawk did not share details of her YouthCare salary. According to public tax documents filed by YouthCare, Giovengo made $168,010 as president and CEO of the organization as recently as 2019.
According to the nonprofit’s annual report from the same year, YouthCare served more than 1,500 youth. As of January 2020, King County estimated that 955 unaccompanied youth and young adults under 25 were experiencing homelessness, a 37% decrease from 2018 estimates.