This month, youth homelessness was supposed to be solved.
Two years ago, members of Pearl Jam joined Seattle’s mayor, the county executive and philanthropy leaders representing the wealth of the region to promise that by June 2021, any young person who showed up at a shelter would get permanent housing in 30 days or less.
Called the “End Youth Homelessness Now Campaign,” and propped up by federal grants and $1.2 million from philanthropy, it was a bold aspiration with the goal of re-imagining the system, including funding and success metrics.
Leeze Castro, 21, who emcee’d the event and was a member of the county’s homelessness Youth Action Board, didn’t think the timeline was realistic, but compared it to beginning to clean a room.
“(You) throw everything in the middle of it and sort through it,” said Castro, who was homeless in high school. “I didn’t think we would clean the room — but I did think we would tear everything up in a way that would demand that action be taken.”
But the campaign never reached the point of action: A year in, it was suspended with no public announcement — just an internal email from LaMont Green, the director, to a few partners saying that he was leaving, effective immediately. The campaign’s staff had all been reassigned or laid off, he said.
The percentage of homeless youth housed in 2020 remained unchanged from before the campaign — 31%, making up less than a thousand people, more than 10% of whom will likely become homeless again in six months if past trends hold.
And in the meantime, frustrations have only grown among the community and business owners about the rising cost of addressing homelessness and the growing number of people on the street.
The county spent $131 million on homelessness in 2020, including federal funding and COVID-19 emergency funding. Nearly $9 million of that was earmarked for youth.
Clashes between campaign staff and county officials kept much of the work from getting off the ground, according to documents obtained by The Seattle Times and interviews with former campaign staffers and staff at All Home, the umbrella organization coordinating all homelessness efforts at the time.
And underlying the dysfunction were allegations of racism from campaign staffers of color directed at county leaders.
“The headline just writes itself: ‘County says it will end youth homelessness and then ends the campaign without telling anybody,'” said Vishesh Jain, the campaign’s data scientist.
Leo Flor, the county’s director of Community and Human Services, said that county-run federal grants for homeless youth projects have made an impact. Those programs operated before the campaign started and are still running.
“The campaign is more than one program or one participant,” Flor said. “The campaign is the idea that the whole community coming together … doing it in a way that’s responsive to youth and informed by data, will work.”
But youth leaders and campaign staff say the county was responsive to neither of those things.
Some of the people at the launch event were skeptical from the start.
King County has made sweeping promises about homelessness before: in 2005, local leaders launched the infamous Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness, and by 2015, local numbers were worse than had ever been counted.
Leaders at YouthCare, a major King County nonprofit that serves homeless youth, expressed doubt that the new campaign would have worked.
“Though we were heartened by our shared mission to end youth homelessness, we had concerns about the feasibility of the campaign timeline and the limited resources to address the issue at scale,” a spokesperson for YouthCare said.
But youth are among the easier categories of homeless to house: The population is generally healthier than homeless single adults over 25, and young people on the streets tug at the public’s heart strings, as well as philanthropies’ purse strings.
In King County, youth homelessness had been on the decline before the campaign launched. Since 2016, unaccompanied youth and young adults under 25 dropped from 14% of the entire population in the county homeless counts to 8% — fewer than 1,000 people — in January 2020. The campaign was supposed to strike the killing blow.
Campaign director Green’s long-term vision was to redesign the way funding worked, according to documents obtained by The Seattle Times, making the End Youth Homelessness Now Campaign a middleman between philanthropies and the nonprofits they funded, controlling public dollars and advising the philanthropies on which programs to fund.
But first, Green wanted to gauge what housing and services existed for this population and what it would cost to create the rest.
“I think we all feel that this is totally doable,” said Casey Trupin, director of youth homelessness strategy for the Raikes Foundation, one of the largest backers of the campaign. (The foundation also helps fund The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless.) “But to be doable, you gotta know what the cost is, you gotta know what you’re spending money on.”
According to a draft version of the analysis obtained by The Seattle Times, youth homelessness could be solved with a $27.5 million infusion if the system continues operating as it has. But if the system’s performance were to be improved even modestly, the problem could be solved, the gap analysis said, with as little as $12.5 million — a relatively small amount in the world of human services spending.
Documents show county enthusiasm for the analysis five months into the campaign. The head of the county’s Community and Human Services data unit, Jennifer Coldiron, said in a late November email that the housing gap analysis was approaching its “final iteration.”
“It’s exciting to see this project so close to completion!” Coldiron wrote to Jain, the campaign’s data scientist.
It was shown to the Raikes Foundation, Microsoft and other funders shortly after that and, despite the enthusiastic response, according to sources in the room, the county kept it from release for four more months before torpedoing it.
“I can’t speak to the accuracy of it, but I think we all felt, and feel, we’ve got to have this,” Trupin said. “If this wasn’t the right analysis with the right numbers, then let’s start again with the right numbers.”
But county leaders shelved the report before the public could ever see it.
Flor, the Community and Human Services director, said the county’s experts didn’t agree with the analysis, and that it “wasn’t up to par.” Flor did not elaborate on what specifically was wrong with the analysis, but said that it was created without the input of other departments — an emblem of “fracturing” within the homeless services system.
Flor said he made the decision to shelve the analysis because it was similar to two others forthcoming. But neither focused specifically on youth homelessness and neither put a price tag specifically on solving it.
‘Something’s not right here’
The End Youth Homelessness Now Campaign staff also advocated to give more money to smaller nonprofits focused on youth of color, and to have the Youth Action Board, largely made up of young people of color, be a driving voice of the campaign.
In a 2020 youth homeless count Green helped conduct, 21% of homeless youth were Black and 21% American Indian or Alaska Native, disproportionately higher than the general population in King County.
Johnathan Hemphill, president of the Youth Action Board, said the major nonprofits were resistant to this.
“All these years, the youth homelessness issues have not gotten better,” Hemphill said. “I look at these white institutions and what they’re saying they need to do, and saying, ‘something’s not right here.'”
Hemphill said he felt the providers were more concerned about maintaining their image and funding. He and the Youth Action Board produced a survey in January 2020 in which some youth alleged that they’d had racially biased experiences with YouthCare, one of the largest youth homelessness nonprofits in King County. But Hemphill said YouthCare staff tried to get him to remove that allegation from the survey before it went public along with a recommendation that YouthCare and other providers undergo biannual equity reviews.
A spokesperson for YouthCare said via email that they “had concerns around data methodology and level of client participation, which we expressed to the (Youth Action Board) along with other providers.”
Major youth homelessness services nonprofits The Y and Friends of Youth declined to talk on the record for this story.
Meanwhile, campaign staff, entirely made up of people of color, were facing off internally with King County officials over what they described as biased treatment.
An August 2019 email obtained by The Seattle Times, signed by the staffs at the campaign and its umbrella organization, All Home, said they had raised numerous concerns about “racist micro-aggressions” and ongoing biased behavior that county leadership never did anything about.
Instead, the month before, the county’s human relations staff launched an investigation after a white county employee filed a complaint about Green’s behavior in a meeting about the analysis. Jain, the data scientist, who was in the meeting and agreed to be interviewed by HR, said Green hadn’t done anything unprofessional in the meeting.
The rest of the campaign and staff at All Home largely refused to participate in the investigation because they said it was wrong that the county was intervening on behalf of a white person but never had when people of color brought up issues.
“We believe that these interviews reinforce institutional culture that disposes of and undermines staff of color,” said an email signed by all All Home and campaign employees. “We were not consulted with the current intervention strategy, and this fact only reminded our team that our voice isn’t respected or acknowledged.”
While he declined to comment on the record about the specifics of his time working with the campaign, Green did say that when he read a recent article about Dr. Ben Danielson‘s allegations of racism at the majority-white Seattle Children’s Hospital, it reminded him of his experience with the county.
Flor, who runs the human resources department and is a person of color, wouldn’t comment on this situation, but said that “systemic racism is real” and shows up in any and all institutions in America.
“It is a leader’s obligation to be clear about that, to speak clearly about that, and then to act in a way that moves … our relationships away from systemic racism,” Flor said.
The HR investigation soured the relationship between the campaign and county officials as it hovered over their work for months. After Green left in July, as well as Jain and the staff at All Home, the campaign was suspended.
‘What message does that send?’
As the campaign remains suspended, the coronavirus pandemic threatens to undo any progress that has been made on youth homelessness: Many young people who were recently housed have been laid off and face uncertainties about what the economy will look like in the next year.
Flor said the campaign will resume once the newly-formed Regional Homelessness Authority is fully set up and can take control, a process that was drastically held up by COVID-19. The authority replaced All Home as a new centralized governing body for homelessness services with more power to enact reforms. Marc Dones, the CEO of the authority, said restarting the campaign is “on my radar but is not yet embedded in any specific planning activity.”
When the campaign launched, one expert told The Seattle Times that continually promising to “end” a type of homelessness and then falling short can “create fatigue” in the general public.
“The challenge with creating a goal like that is if you don’t meet it, what message does that send?” researcher Mark Courtney told The Seattle Times in June 2019. “Does the public get tired of these efforts, these promises that we’re going to end some type of homelessness in two years?”