SEATTLE ‒ The temperature is falling, and in Seattle, the leaves and rain are falling as well. Festive music fills storefronts, and there’s a buzz as the holidays approach and thoughts turn to home. But, for 22-year-old David – and more than 3 million other Americans who experience homelessness in a given year, including 1.3 million children – the season means finding a place to stay warm and dry.
David is a lot like others his age, he uses Facebook to stay in touch with his older brother, is into chai lattes with whipped cream on top, and would love to see the Broadway show Wicked.
But, unlike most 22-year-olds, David spends his afternoons at Peace for the Streets by Kids From the Streets (PSKS), a drop-in center for at-risk youth and young adults located just up the hill from downtown Seattle.
Originally from Ohio, David traveled thousands of miles across the country with the hope of staying with a family member while he got a fresh start in Seattle. Unfortunately, the family member was unable to house him.
Because of the recession, lack of employment opportunities, and lack of affordable rental housing, many young adults can’t afford housing. The state of Washington, in particular the Seattle area, has a high number of homeless youth and young adults.
More than 2,000 individuals younger than 25 – many formerly in the foster care system – are living on Seattle streets according to the Seattle Human Services Department.
PSKS does not shelter individuals overnight, so David and other clients and visitors who seek education, food, warmth and community at PSKS during the day have to find other places to sleep.
Training and Services
PSKS is providing David with training so that he can build a future in Seattle, but, in October 2012, it looked as if the 18-year-old center might have to shut its doors for financial reasons. According to The Seattle Times, the center costs at least $18,000 a month to operate. A significant amount of the required funds come from donations and grants, and when those began to slow, founder Elaine Simons reached out to the community for help.
With contributions from more than 400 individuals and organizations, PSKS was able to raise enough money to keep the center open into next year. In addition, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn pledged that the city would match citizens’ donations to PSKS up to $20,000.
PSKS Director Elaine Simons began her journey with what was to become PSKS while teaching at the Orion Center in Seattle, a youth and young adult facility that offers education and other services to at-risk and homeless youth.
Simons began to notice that after lunch each day, many students would not return to classes.
“One day I decided to try something new,” said Simons. “I told students to divide into groups of four and to walk in different directions for a mile and then return. When they got back, I asked them what they saw, and what they would want to do at the places they visited.”
Her students replied that the homelessness and poverty they encountered made them want to speak to lawmakers, and that they wanted to put on a homelessness awareness concert.
It was 1995, the Washington state Legislature was in the process of passing the Becca bill, which called for a tougher stance on truancy and runaways. The intent of the bill was to keep at-risk children in school and prevent them from falling through the cracks of the system.
The Becca bill was named after a 13-year-old Washington runaway who was murdered. Months before her death, Becca’s parents had asked the juvenile court for help, saying that their daughter was “out of control.” After she was killed, parents lobbied the Legislature, claiming that stricter rules for runaways and students skipping school would encourage better behavior and ensure the safety of troubled youth.
Simons, however, believed the bill would make the situations for runaways and homeless youth worse.
Because of the Becca bill and the growing rate of homelessness in Washington state, Simons and her students moved forward quickly with the concert. Simons made a deal with her students: If they returned to class after lunch each day, the rest of the afternoon would be used for concert planning. Enrollment at the Orion Center doubled.
“There was this great sense of energy,” said Simons. “The concert attracted 1,500 people. After it was all over, we didn’t want to stop.”
Over the next few years, Simons and her students lobbied on many issues, both on the streets of Seattle and at the state Capitol in Olympia.
“Before we knew it, we had $31,000 in grants,” she said. The PSKS mission statement prioritizes social action and advocacy while making sure that the basic needs of homeless and at-risk youth are met.
Simons was holding meetings in her apartment and organizing independently when she was approached by an assistant to the governor at the time.
Simons recalled, “I was told that what my students and I were doing was great, but that if I wanted to continue, we had to become a nonprofit and relocate” – Simons paused and grinned – “(because) as it was, I was technically harboring runaways.”
A Place of Their Own
“By 2000, we had nonprofit status,” said Simons. “We keep our doors open to young adults who have phased out of many other neighboring programs. People in their early and mid 20s shouldn’t have to be out there with 60-year-old men, and many don’t feel comfortable.”
“Core” PSKS members – current and former clients – volunteer and represent PSKS in the community. They provide feedback on PSKS services, policies, priorities and finances; serve as mentors to incoming youth; help with daily operations; and advocate on important issues.
Core members have been instrumental in creating the inclusiveness at PSKS, which welcomes animal companions and children and serves young adults ages 23–26 that are often excluded from homeless youth programs.
Currently, David is working with PSKS to get a food handler permit so that he can begin a new job, but he isn’t planning to work in the food industry forever.
“I love theatre; I’m really into the production aspect of it,” said David. “I’d like to go to the Art Institute to study digital production or something like that.
“All I need now is a roommate,” said David. “I have two jobs. I’m just trying to live a day at a time until I can get out of my current situation.”
In the meantime, David is staying at a shelter every night, teaching himself to play the piano, working, and visiting PSKS during the afternoons.
Although the financial crisis that PSKS faced is, for the time being, resolved, long-term issues surrounding the makeup of the organization and its goals continue.
Internal and external conflicts surround the mission and effectiveness of PSKS, and Simons often feels as though she is being pulled in different directions.
“Our financial crisis manifested a lot of emotion,” said Simons, “A lot of things being asked of me by our PSKS core members are expected to have been done yesterday. We have worked hard to keep our doors open to provide service and advocacy. When those collide, there is often a disconnect.”
She finds her motivation in the faces of the youth.
One of those youth is David. For him, PSKS has been a lifeline.
“PSKS means a lot to a lot of people. I hope they can find a way to not only make it this year, but next year and the year after that,” he said.