Night has descended on Watson Manor, a small apartment building near downtown Kent for young mothers and children who otherwise would be homeless, and Erum Irfan’s day is coming to an end.

As the building’s manager, she readies and decorates the apartments, monitors the property, coaches the mothers and sometimes even babysits their kids. The job can be demanding, because residents arrive knotted up by stress. But Watson Manor is tranquil this evening, and Irfan’s work seems done.

She starts down an outdoor walkway, past a row of first-floor apartments. Then she turns right, climbs a flight of stairs to the second floor, opens an apartment door and steps inside.

She’s home.

For almost 18 years, Irfan has lived and worked in the building operated by Kent Youth and Family Services (KYFS), one of 12 nonprofits that benefit from readers’ holiday-time donations to The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy. The organization also offers preschool and mental-health programs, substance-use-disorder counseling and case management for victims of human trafficking.

Irfan and her husband, who works in the accounting department at KYFS and does building maintenance at Watson Manor, have raised their own three children alongside the teen and young-adult residents who rely on her for advice and affirmation during a tender time in their lives.

“When they come here, they don’t have anything. They’ve been sleeping at a friend’s house or a shelter or in the car,” said Irfan, 49. “I praise them because they’re raising their kids by themselves. They’re cooking, taking the bus to work, to school. Doing laundry. I wouldn’t be able to do that alone. So I tell them every day, ‘You guys are amazing. You’re wonderful.’ “

What your donation means to Kent Youth and Family Services

$25: Buys a week of nutritious meals for a child. <br><br>$35: Funds a community presentation about how to combat human trafficking. <br><br>$75: Covers a year of learning supplies for a preschool student.<br><br>$200: Funds a week of support services for a homeless mother and her children at Watson Manor.

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Though Watson Manor has only eight client apartments, the building caters to a particularly vulnerable population, providing very low-income mothers (and expecting mothers) ages 16 to 25 with up to two years of housing after they’re referred by another nonprofit or a crisis hotline. No other transitional housing program in King County serves mothers under 18, said Mike Heinisch, KYFS executive director.

Irfan calls her residents “the girls,” and the care she dispenses is just as important as the building keeping them warm and dry, added Paul Tan, KYFS housing director. Many are learning how to be mothers, becoming independent adults, dealing with past traumas and navigating relationships — all at once.

“When we talk about homelessness, we talk about getting people into housing. But that’s just the start. The girls need internal healing. They need more than a pillow and a bed,” Tan said. “Erum makes it sound easy but it’s really difficult work that she does. It’s emotional and deep. She hears things from the girls that they’ve never told anyone.”

Amina Hassan remembers setting her bags down at Watson Manor in 2005. She’d been sleeping on couches with her baby daughter and 3-year-old son.

“It was like a relief, like all the heavy stuff was gone,” said Hassan, who managed to complete high school while living at the building, with homework help from Irfan. “I was behind on my grades, but she told me, ‘You can do it, Amina.’ She understood.”

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Hassan still lives in Kent, where her son graduated from high school last year. Her daughter wants to become a nurse. Watson Manor made all that possible, she said.

KYFS opened the building almost three decades ago. Yet the program remains incredibly important because Kent and nearby communities are still contending with wrenching homelessness, Heinisch said.

Last January’s one-night estimate of people without homes across southwest King County counted more than 1,700 sleeping outside, in shelters and in transitional housing, representing 18% of the countywide tally.

Fewer homeless youth, young adults and families with children were counted than in 2017 and 2018, possibly thanks in part to targeted programs. But the numbers dropped much less for African American and Native youth than for white youth, and the estimates are incomplete.

“Especially for youth and young adults, we know many are housing insecure or doubling up with friends, lovers, boyfriends, whatever,” said Josephine Ensign, a University of Washington nursing professor who works with homeless young people. “Those situations aren’t included in these counts.”

The young women at Watson Manor may have been kicked out by relatives or spun through the foster-care system. Some have partners who are involved with their kids, while others don’t. More than when the program started, many residents are domestic- violence survivors and many are grappling with challenges related to mental health and substance use, Heinisch said.

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“A lot of patience”

Growing up in Pakistan and living with her husband in Saudi Arabia, Irfan had no clue she would work in social services, she said. She heard about Watson Manor from her daughter’s Head Start case manager in Bellevue. “She told me this would be perfect for me,” Irfan said. “I have a lot of patience.”

Before a new resident moves in, Irfan does an interview to determine what help may be needed. Some of her subsequent work is structured: She conducts weekly inspections to make sure the apartments are clean and safe, gently nudging residents about toys strewn around or sinks piled with dishes.

Known as a mother to all at Watson Manor, sometimes the toddlers call Erum Irfan “mama.” (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
Known as a mother to all at Watson Manor, sometimes the toddlers call Erum Irfan “mama.” (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

She meets with the mothers in a cozy community room so they can set personal goals, such as passing GED tests. She shows them how to sign up for benefits like food stamps and enforces the building’s 10 p.m. curfew.

“It’s not just keeping to yourself,” said a 19-year-old resident with a giggly toddler who requested anonymity based on her sensitive situation. “You have the check-ins and help with school and resources, so you’re not alone.”

That resident has been able to work and sign up for community-college classes, enrolling her daughter in a day care recommended by Irfan, she said. Finding appropriate child care is key for young mothers trying to leave homelessness and achieve a more “stable trajectory,” said Ensign, the UW professor.

Irfan’s job can also entail being available late at night, in case a partner shows up at the building and domestic violence is a concern.

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When emergencies arise, “The girls do come straight to my apartment and we call the police,” Irfan said. “I don’t show my fear to the girls because I want them to come to me.”

In other situations, a resident may return home upset and slam her apartment door closed or may stew inside for days, depressed. Irfan knows the right time to ask what’s wrong.

“I don’t go right away. I give her a little space,” she said. “But then I go. It’s easier to leave a person alone but you cannot. While living here, you cannot.”

Fortunately for Irfan, the job includes babies, too. The kids who take her hand and proudly show off their rooms make her smile. Toddlers visit her apartment to pet Zaina, her daughter’s velvety gray cat and “they sometimes call me ‘mama’ because they can’t pronounce my name,” Irfan said.

Watson Manor served 18 mothers last year, allowing them to set their worries down and breathe. Residents leave with apartment leases, jobs and degrees. Some return years later to make donations — and to visit Irfan.

Weaving her story into theirs, working and living with them, she shows them they deserve love and respect, buoying their confidence, Tan said.

“That’s invaluable,” Tan said. “Sometimes we try to silo our lives. But when you make your lives about this, you look longer term. (Irfan and her husband) can’t get away. They’re not going away. They’re here for the long haul.”