On a recent Tuesday morning, the smell of bacon filled the hall at Peace for the Streets by Kids from the Streets, a 25-bed shelter for young adults on Seattle’s Capitol Hill.
Shane Damon, a soft-spoken 21-year-old, alerted Michiru Ellis, 22, and her partner, Zachary Lewis, 22, to the work of case managers in the kitchen: “Hey, they’re making pancakes for you guys!”
Ellis was seven months pregnant. She and Lewis had arrived at the shelter two weeks before after various stints with housing had fallen through. Now they were trying to find somewhere stable in time for their baby’s November arrival.
But Damon, Ellis and Lewis were also staring down another fast-approaching deadline. Last month, the shelter, commonly known by its acronym PSKS, announced it would permanently close its doors by Dec. 31.
The couple was hopeful about getting a spot at Mary’s Place or permanent housing before the looming deadline, but Damon wasn’t so sure about his plans.
“I’m kind of scatterbrained at this point, to where it’s like, I’ve got to find other shelters,” Damon said. “I’m OK,” he followed quickly. “I think at this point we’re all just trying to find ourselves.”
To other young-adult and youth service providers in King County, news of PSKS’ closure came as a shock. The 25 beds going offline in winter represent more than a sixth of all emergency-shelter beds just for young adults in Seattle.
Beyond the extra stress created by slimming resources, nonprofits that form the social safety net for young people say there’s reason to worry more organizations like PSKS could go under. In a city and county where residents struggle to pay rent, so are the nonprofits serving homeless young people.
“It’s a pretty clear symptom [that] others, and I’ll say us, could easily follow,” said Mike Heinisch, executive director of Kent Youth and Family Services. “Because most of us look at our balance sheets and say we ain’t that far away either.”
Teetering on the brink
This year wasn’t the first time PSKS stared down a financial crisis.
PSKS began in 1995, when a group of homeless teens and their summer-program teacher, Elaine Simons, started organizing a concert to protest the Becca Bill, a piece of legislation that threatened runaways with juvenile detention. Their advocacy grew into a scrappy, brick-and-mortar youth center.
In 2012, Simons announced the center would close if it didn’t get a transfusion of money. Private funders stepped up, and then-Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn announced a $20,000 city matching grant for the nonprofit.
In the years since, PSKS became an overnight shelter and adopted a low-barrier model, meaning young people could come in with partners, pets and active addictions. Last year, it extended its hours, so people didn’t have to leave when they woke up and could access wraparound services like case management and other programming.
As of June, PSKS had one of the highest rates of exit to permanent housing among emergency shelters for youth and young adults in King County, according to All Home King County, the county’s coordinating agency for homeless services.
“PSKS is one of our really high-performing emergency shelters in our system because it’s an enhanced shelter,” LaMont Green, initiative director of All Home King County’s End Youth Homelessness Now campaign, said.
But despite its success, PSKS was struggling to survive, facing gentrification, a paucity of government funding and difficulty keeping employees because of low pay.
The average case manager at PSKS makes $43,000, according to the nonprofit, in a city where the median household income just topped $93,000.
PSKS also faced the reality of the Seattle real-estate market. The organization paid below-market rent for years to the church that hosted it, but in 2016 the property was sold to a developer.
“I would consider PSKS to be the canary in the coal mine,” said longtime PSKS board member and former board president Andrea Vitalich. “Because the entire service-providing model is not sustainable.”
Heather Fitzpatrick, president and CEO of Wellspring Family Services, said government contracts that don’t cover the full cost of programming are a significant source of instability for youth and young-adult nonprofits. Often, Seattle and King County contracts cover about 65% of what’s needed to fund the work, Fitzpatrick said, and nonprofits have to raise money from private philanthropies to fill in the gaps. Doing that work adds another burden.
“Many organizations in our sector are struggling to pay our bills, so we’re just going to see more and more organizations that are teetering on the brink, facing increasing costs, facing the challenge of retaining personnel and hiring, and it will be driving more and more organizations under,” Fitzpatrick said.
PSKS’ current contract with the city for enhanced shelter is worth $432,432 if the organization meets its performance goals on a quarterly basis. The nonprofit has budgeted $900,000 in annual expenses, PSKS’ outgoing interim executive director Sylvia Fuerstenberg said last month. PSKS asked the city for additional funding, Fuerstenberg said, but was told it couldn’t receive it without an additional request for proposals process.
City of Seattle spokesperson Meg Olberding said PSKS “did not ask for specific additional funding” and said the city’s Human Services Department (HSD) was only notified of PSKS’ decision to close the day before it was announced.
“HSD closely monitors the availability of resources for people experiencing homelessness, and is in dialogue with community partners about supporting any need this closure leaves,” Olberding said in an emailed statement.
This past summer, the Seattle City Council approved a 2% adjustment for inflation in its human-services contracts — a recognition that service providers were struggling to hire and retain staff at low salaries that didn’t account for Seattle’s cost of living. Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed 2020 budget increased that adjustment to 2.6%.
Youth and young-adult service providers celebrated the raise. But for Fuerstenberg, it was “much, much too small and way, way too late.”
“That scares me to death”
This past January’s one-night homeless count showed a 28% drop in youth and young-adult homelessness, following an influx of federal, state and philanthropic funding targeted at that age group.
Then, in June, Seattle and King County announced that they’d be joining forces to end youth homelessness by 2021. But losing PSKS’ beds and services could hinder the effort “especially given the number of unsheltered young adults we have,” said Green, of the End Youth Homelessness Now campaign. “Oftentimes emergency shelter is the safe space from where you can get them into substance-use treatment, housing and other things.”
Simons, PSKS’ co-founder, said she wondered about the youth PSKS currently serves.
“Will these kids be able to integrate back into those other agencies?” Simons asked. If not, “they’re going to go out on those streets, and that scares me to death.”
Back at PSKS, as the shelter prepared to close at 2 p.m., Ellis and Lewis pulled on their backpacks. The two were headed to the University of Washington until the shelter opened again that night.
Damon lingered outside the shelter with a group of friends. PSKS would reopen after 9 p.m., but until then, they were on their own.