At 8 p.m. on a recent Wednesday, the phone rang.
“ROOTS Young Adult Shelter, this is Laura,” said Laura Nordquist, 25. “What was your name?” “Last initial?” “OK, we’ll see you tonight.”
The phone rang again. And again.
It was about a call per minute. By 8:14 p.m., Nordquist’s list had 14 names. By 8:30, Nordquist combined her list of homeless young adults who called to reserve a bed with the names of others waiting on the steps outside. Then, she counted out 27 numbered wooden tokens dumped out of a plastic yogurt container: A lottery to decide who would sleep inside the shelter that night.
ROOTS is the largest shelter of its kind in Washington, offering 45 emergency beds, hot meals, showers, case management and social support for young adults aged 18 through 25. It’s been in a U District church basement for 20 years, having cropped up to serve the community of homeless young adults in the area.
But by the end of next year, ROOTS has to be out of its longtime home. With light rail coming to the neighborhood by 2021, the church housing the shelter is working with a developer to transform the property into a tower intended for private student housing, with a new church facility included.
The displacement timeline is even shorter for Peace for the Streets by Kids from the Streets, a 25-bed enhanced homeless shelter for young adults on former church property on Capitol Hill. The church sold the property to a developer in 2016, and PSKS has until February to leave.
Together, the beds facing displacement total roughly half of Seattle’s entire emergency shelter bed capacity for young adults. The potential loss of beds puts even more pressure on a county and state push to eliminate youth homelessness. And it is a sign that, despite the city’s efforts to expand shelter capacity, Seattle’s forces of gentrification are pushing back.
King County’s homeless population makes up more than half the state’s total, and more than 1,000 of them are unaccompanied young adults mostly sleeping outside, according to the county’s latest homelessness count.
“The risk to both of these agencies is fairly high,” Arthur Padilla, ROOTS executive director, said. “To me, it’s a major issue in the city. We cannot afford to lose emergency beds. The access to resources needs to be here for the kids who need them when they need them.”
Padilla has been searching for a new spot for a year, and so far, has found nothing. He said ROOTS pays the church a below-market rate – about $54,000 a year for 7,000 square feet of space that includes a commercial kitchen. Comparable office space in the U District or Ballard rent for at least double that amount per square foot.
Those costs don’t include the price of renovating a new space for shelter, either. Even if Padilla were to find another church to host the shelter at a below-market rate, he estimates that would take another $700,000, at least. In 2017, ROOTS had less than $2.1 million in total assets, according to financial disclosure forms.
“It’s not nearly enough to compete in the real estate market today,” Padilla said. “It’s just the reality.”
Gentrification threatens nonprofits
Nearly four years into a city-declared homelessness state of emergency, the economic forces reshaping the city don’t just threaten to displace its most vulnerable residents — they threaten to push out the shelters that support them.
The University Temple United Methodist Church sanctuary above the basement that hosts ROOTS was built to serve more than 800 people nearly a century ago, but today, services usually draw 100 congregants or fewer. At the same time, the church’s property value has more than doubled in the last five years alone.
The church will help ROOTS move and maintain space for human services after the redevelopment, but not enough to meet the shelter’s needs.
Peace for the Streets by Kids from the Streets (PSKS), a 25-bed shelter on Capitol Hill, faced a similar dilemma when Mt. Zion Baptist Church sold the property hosting the shelter to a developer in 2016. The shelter was able to continue operating after the sale, but now has until February before its lease expires and it has to move out, according to PSKS interim executive director Sylvia Fuerstenberg.
Fuerstenberg said she’s found another church in the area to host PSKS. But she’s still staring down the costs of renovating the space, and moving doesn’t guarantee the shelter’s long-term survival.
“Unless we suddenly solve youth homelessness and we don’t need shelter,” Fuerstenberg said. “But I don’t see that happening in the near future.”
The county and state, however, have set out ambitious goals to find those solutions. In 2017, King County won a $5.4 million federal grant to set up systems to end youth and young adult homelessness. A year later, the state legislature unanimously pledged to end discharges of unaccompanied youth from institutions like foster care and juvenile detention into homelessness by 2021.
The county’s 2019 annual homelessness count indicated that some of the efforts and funding flooding into this space may be working: The count found that the number of homeless youth and young adults had dropped 28% over 2018.
The count, however, is imperfect at best, and service providers say it doesn’t capture the youth and young adults couch-surfing, staying with friends, or camping in hard-to-find places.
Fuerstenberg says her shelter is full most nights. She believes the point-in-time to be an undercount, and doesn’t think available funding is matching the rise in costs for the nonprofits that serve young adults.
“It’s going to take a while,” Fuerstenberg said. “The same problem that our young people are facing, in terms of the cost of living here and getting a start in life, are happening to the nonprofits that serve them.”
Seattle City Councilmember Lorena González said that if ROOTS isn’t able to find new space, she believes the loss of shelter for young adults “would be devastating” to the progress the region has made so far. The city was working to try and find a willing landlord to host ROOTS, she added.
State House Speaker Frank Chopp, who represents the U District, described ROOTS’ situation as a “crisis” and said he plans to advocate for the shelter in Olympia next session. Chopp said he’s also in active talks with the University of Washington to find ROOTS a new home.
“People’s lives are at stake,” Chopp said.
“I remember smelling the cherry blossoms”
Back at ROOTS, by 9 p.m. an army of volunteers, most of them the same age as the guests, have sprayed down mats, folded sheets and held a meeting on what to expect. The kids filtered in as their names were called, some carrying instruments, most with headphones and backpacks.
They could have easily passed for the University of Washington students sleeping in dorms or private housing if it weren’t for the hands that looked a little weathered, a few baby-fat faces a little too exposed to the sun.
Thirty-two slept at the shelter that night. Almost all of them were black or brown.
“The population tends to migrate to this area because it’s so easy to assimilate and blend in with the student population,” Kat Ousley, ROOTS shelter director, said. “Campus is a place where they can be and fly under the radar and don’t necessarily get perceived as homeless because they have a backpack.”
Ivan Hernandez, 24, worked at the shelter that night as a volunteer, but three years ago, he was one of the young people sleeping here. He said he entered the foster-care system at 16 after a turbulent home life, then the juvenile-justice system after he ran away. By his early 20s, he was struggling with addiction to meth and heroin and avoiding adult shelters where he felt unsafe.
Being in the University District felt like a relief from all that. Walking through the University of Washington campus on his way to the shelter inspired him.
“Like, no, I can totally be one of these kids,” Hernandez remembered thinking at the time. “If I just said, ‘This is what my recovery is about, like opening new doors and things.’ I remember smelling the cherry blossoms and thinking, like, this smells so much better than downtown.”
Hernandez has housing now, and a job. He’s working in a Buddhist recovery program that focuses on mindfulness and finds solace in the punk scene. He volunteers to try to make the young adults here feel like they’re seen, like he felt when he stayed here.
If ROOTS finds a new location, he thinks it’ll be OK – as long as the community works together. If the shelter doesn’t find a new space, he doesn’t know what would happen.
“I know a lot of these kids see this place as kind of home to them,” Hernandez said. “It’s a part of their story as much as it’s been a part of mine.”