Longtime YouthCare president and CEO Melinda Giovengo will leave one of Seattle’s most prominent homelessness organizations at the end of August following a period of internal turmoil over allegations of racism from staff and protesters.
In her 14 years at YouthCare, Giovengo became one of the most influential leaders on homelessness policy in Seattle and King County and was well-connected with local elected officials. She served on the former coordinating board for the region’s major homelessness nonprofits for years and was among the contenders for the job of CEO at its successor, the new Regional Homelessness Authority, according to internal documents obtained by The Seattle Times.
But over the last year, as protests over the death of George Floyd, racism and police brutality erupted on city streets, current and former YouthCare staffers questioned Giovengo’s leadership and criticized her management style and direction for the organization.
A day after the organization was contacted by The Seattle Times about her resignation, YouthCare released a public statement from Giovengo announcing her departure and acceptance of a fellowship at Harvard University to study youth homelessness.
“The last 18 months has presented many challenges to all of us,” Giovengo’s statement read. “Much has changed and I feel that it is an important time to step aside to make way for new leadership.”
According to public tax documents filed by YouthCare, Giovengo made $168,010 as president and CEO of the organization as recently as 2019.
YouthCare’s internal conflict reached a peak this past March when immigrant youth activists protested at a YouthCare-run facility paid for by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement where the nonprofit cares for unaccompanied, undocumented youth. Social media videos showed protesters surrounding Giovengo in a car as she held up a phone pointed at the protesters. Seattle police eventually showed up on the scene.
It is unclear what caused the protesters to surround the car or why Giovengo was holding up her phone.
YouthCare chief advancement officer Suzanne Sullivan said that, according to Giovengo, a neighbor and a security guard called the police, after which a YouthCare staffer shared that information with Giovengo. The Seattle Police Department said they could not confirm if Giovengo placed a 911 call.
“Once Melinda heard police were called, she reached out herself to say she was the person in the car, the protesters are youth, they aren’t on drugs or drinking, and she just needed to leave,” Sullivan wrote by email. “The youth were shaking her car, yelling profanities and spitting on her car. We understand this to be the reason the police were called.”
For several current and former YouthCare staffers, this moment turned into a call for Giovengo to step down. They felt her actions conflicted with what they believed should be the social justice goals of an organization that serves immigrant youth and homeless young people of color.
Other staff members disagreed with protesters’ tactics to show up at a location where undocumented youth – some threatened by cartel violence in their countries of origin – were staying.
In a petition sent to YouthCare’s board of directors two weeks later, current and former staffers 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.”
Giovengo did not immediately respond to questions about these allegations.
YouthCare’s board commissioned MFR Law Group to investigate concerns raised by staff this past spring, and in June, announced Giovengo’s departure.
In the internal email announcing Giovengo’s departure obtained by The Seattle Times, YouthCare board chair Karen Jones wrote that the organization “need(s) to make significant changes to build a more inclusive culture and work environment in which all staff feel valued, supported, and secure in voicing their opinions, and otherwise equipped to do their very best work.”
Jones wrote that the board was committed to increasing the diversity of its membership and advancing YouthCare’s diversity, equity, inclusion and social justice work, among other changes. The board would work on a transition plan for incoming leadership in the coming months, she said.
YouthCare and Giovengo’s leadership has come under fire before. Youth advocates and former staff accused Giovengo of opposing and trying to undermine the End Youth Homelessness Now Campaign, a failed effort to end youth homelessness in two years.
They also pointed to a survey of homeless youth where some alleged racially biased treatment from YouthCare and other nonprofits was reported, which YouthCare staff lobbied to remove before publication.
Giovengo also clashed with Black leaders on the Regional Homelessness Authority over whether to give more power in the newly created authority to nonprofits such as hers, or a group led by people of color who’d experienced homelessness.
“As she concludes her long tenure as YouthCare’s leader, it is important to acknowledge the contributions she has made,” Jones wrote. “From her early days as a YouthCare caseworker to today, Melinda has dedicated her career to helping young people experiencing homelessness. She has encouraged, inspired, and motivated thousands of youths, staff, donors, public officials, and community leaders to believe that we can and should work to ensure that every young person feels valued and can thrive.”
She continued: “In her 14 years as our CEO, Melinda has helped build YouthCare from an agency on the verge of having to close its doors to the organization it is today, a nationally-recognized leader in addressing youth homelessness, with 19 sites throughout the city, an $18 million budget, and a reputation for leading innovative programming in support of young people.”
According to a 2019 annual report, YouthCare served more than 1,500 youth. Unaccompanied youth and young adults under 25 make up 8% — fewer than 1,000 people — of the homeless population in King County, as of January 2020.
Seattle Times staff reporter Scott Greenstone contributed to this story.