ROOTS, a shelter for young adults, benefits staff and community, too.

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At ROOTS everybody gives something and everybody gets something.

ROOTS is a shelter for homeless young adults, and one in which you’d have a hard time telling the staff from the guests.

It occupies part of the basement of University Temple United Methodist Church in Seattle’s University District.

Most of the people working in the shelter are young, too, and they are mostly volunteers who find the experience rewarding.

The community benefits, too, because each night 35 young people aren’t on the streets, and, longer term, the shelter gives young people a hand up toward better circumstances. (The acronym stands for Rising Out Of The Shadows.)

I heard about ROOTS a couple of weeks ago when it was celebrating an expansion, with Seattle City Council members and other dignitaries.

On a less festive night I had a chance to see how it operates and why it matters.

The people it serves are between 18 and 25, and there are far more of them on the streets than ROOTS can accommodate.

Kristine Cunningham, the executive director, told me that last year they had to turn away people more than 2,000 times.

The people who seek shelter at ROOTS come from all over King County. ROOTS is the largest of three shelters specifically for young people. One on the Eastside and another downtown Seattle each have 15 beds.

When I got there at 7:30 p.m. on a Thursday there were more than a dozen people sitting on the steps or huddled in the alley near the shelter entrance.

Potential guests put their names on a sign-up sheet. Some hang around, and others go away until the doors open at 8:30 and staffers call off names to see who is there and whether or not a lottery will be needed.

There were 37 that night; two latecomers were put on a wait list (a few spots are held for people who’ve signed up but have work or classes before they can come in). Often there are lots more people than beds, in which case all the names go into a hopper and winners are picked at random.

They do it that way rather than first-come, first-served, so there won’t be a riot of people trying to get on the list.

At 9 p.m., guests are admitted, one at a time. A volunteer asks each one: Do you feel safe, are you healthy or in need, are you 18 to 25, do you have a weapon to check?

ROOTS is what’s called a low-barrier shelter. There aren’t a lot of conditions for entry. You just have to behave while you’re there. What’s most important, Cunningham said, is to keep as many people as possible off the streets.


Related video: Finding safe spaces for homeless LGBTQ youth in Seattle

Pixie and Kellie are both young, homeless and identify as LGBTQ. Their experience provides insight into why LGBTQ youth are disproportionately affected by homelessness and how King County can better serve them. Read more. (Lauren Frohne / The Seattle Times)    

Most of the people who came last Thursday were young men, more of them black than you might expect in the North End. The shelter also gets a disproportionately large number of LGBTQ guests.

Young people come for all kinds of reasons. Some have aged out of foster care.

A young woman named Jett, lying on one of the mats that serve as beds, said she was 20. “I was in foster care. They kicked me out five days after I turned 18,” she said.

One University of Washington student didn’t have enough money for a dorm, and she is trying to find a permanent place to stay.

Mitch was wearing a jacket and tie. He’s 21 and found work, but it doesn’t pay much, so he doesn’t have rent money yet. He said he’s pleased just to have work. “I can at least feed myself.”

His finger was holding his place in a book, “Paradise Lost.”

For a moment I thought it was apt, but most of the kids in that room didn’t start out in paradise. They do, however, have a chance to reach someplace better than where they are now.

The shelter has caseworkers, and does referrals to programs that can help in a variety of ways. Just being off the street and safe makes a difference.

ROOTS started a dozen years ago with volunteers concerned about the safety of young people on the streets. They operated in a different church each night, before settling in one spot.

The work they were celebrating earlier this month added showers, lockers and more bathrooms. And ROOTS is working to add 10 more beds.

Cunningham, the executive director, said she benefits from knowing the guests. She’s done lots of social-service work over the years but likes ROOTS best. “These guys have the most blatant optimism.” She gets a lift from that.

Turning people away hurts her, she said. It hurts homeless young adults and it hurts the community, too. You can connect with ROOTS online

We need more of the mutual benefits on display at ROOTS.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or Twitter: @jerrylarge.