Growing up homeless in and around Seattle, Washington helped Santii Estrella grasp what vulnerable youth most need in order to find stable housing when they become adults: compassionate guidance, and the wisdom of someone who knows such struggles firsthand.
Similar insights came early on to DeeAnna Deerwester of the eastern Washington town of Newport, whose parents took in teens who’d been kicked out, or had run away. That knowledge deepened when she found herself sleeping on friends’ couches as a young adult because she couldn’t afford her state’s soaring rents.
Estrella, 22, and Deerwester, 21, are among the young people who know exactly what it’s like to have nowhere to sleep, to fear the nighttime hours, and to face the uncertainty of relying on strangers. Forty such advisors have helped leaders of Washington state’s Office of Homeless Youth decide how to spend vital grant funding for local service agencies. They join a growing number of young people hired for jobs where life experiences and insights are valued and sought out — matching the services they provide.
“It’s really hard to get someone who is homeless to relate to you,” Estrella said, “if you’ve never been homeless.”
Hope and friendship
The tent city where Estrella once lived with his mother and six siblings in Seattle is now a community of tiny houses called Othello Village. When he lived there as a young teen, Estrella worried about his younger siblings’ safety, and their exposure to people using drugs like heroin and crystal methamphetamine. It was not a good place for children, he said, and through his work now, he hopes to help families avoid that kind of environment whenever possible.
Like most who experience homelessness, Estrella’s story is complex. His family sometimes received public assistance, he said, but his mother’s mental health challenges made it hard for her to make good decisions. She also did not like accepting government support, Estrella said, and they once lost their Section 8 housing because she wanted to work to support her kids entirely on her own.
Estrella is thankful he had brothers and sisters to buffer some of the harder childhood experiences he endured.
Yet an estimated 13,000 to 15,000 youth and young adults in his state survive homelessness on their own each year, reports A Way Home Washington, a nonprofit working to prevent youth homelessness.
That’s part of what Estrella is focused on for his new job as a systems advocate for the King County Regional Homeless Authority. In this post, he relies on his experiences to connect with people needing help now — people like his mom, and his brothers and sisters.
There are currently 25 staff on the regional homeless authority’ systems advocates team, all of whom have lived experiences. It’s a key qualification the agency seeks in its applicants for the systems advocacy team — positions like the one Estrella now holds.
People who have transitioned out of homelessness know the barriers and how to navigate them, said spokesperson for the authority Anne Martens.
Another goal? Providing hope and friendship, she added, and showing those they serve that “homelessness does not have to be the defining characteristic of your life.”
‘Missing pieces of the puzzle’
The 40 young adults who worked on the spending plan for the Office of Homeless Youth — a division of the Department of Commerce — made their funding choices during a statewide conference last spring. At the two-day Youth for Youth 2022 Conference, held in the city of SeaTac, participants ages 16 to 24 played music, danced, and created art before diving into the funding proposals. Many of the youth — who have all been homelessness at least once — received a stipend for their contributions.
In July, $6.7 million was awarded to four initiatives, which helped cover services for homeless youth across the state. They include the Independent Youth Housing Program, which provides rental assistance and case management to current and former foster youth; Ancillary Therapeutic Services, offering onsite therapy for licensed overnight youth shelters and crisis residential centers; Homeless Student Stability Program, which includes housing support services to homeless students and System of Care, which provides grants to prevent young people from exiting publicly funded programs into homelessness.
Riannon Bardsley, statewide initiatives manager with the Office of Homeless Youth, said it was exciting to learn from young people like Deerwester and Estrella. Their insights, she said, were essential to the decision-making process.
They were “able to see how important all of this was, and the purpose behind it was really motivating to them,” she said. “It wasn’t hard to get them to lean in. They know why. They’ve been living this.”
‘Just need someone who will listen’
Deerwester learned of the organization she now works for when she was seeking services herself. Living at home wasn’t an option after high school, she said, and she found herself looking for work, and couch surfing.
Deerwester started as a youth program specialist with YES, a drop-in center and street outreach program in Newport, in the summer of 2021.
She is deeply moved by those she serves.
“There’s too many young people, people who haven’t even graduated high school, who are suffering from housing instability,” she said. “I always wanted to do something about it, but never knew exactly what I could do.”
Her job answers that calling. YES helps youth and young adults who are experiencing not only homelessness, but also poverty, and exclusion or harassment related to their race, gender identity or sexuality.
“My favorite part of the work I do is that I get to take my experience and use it to help others,” she said. “I think the biggest thing is that they just need someone who will listen to them.”
‘No role models’
Estrella’s journey from troubled childhood to homelessness landed him in juvenile detention for shoplifting and car theft as a young teen, he said. But while he was locked up, he came to a deep realization about himself — one that changed how he approaches his life.
“Not having a father, and my mom being mentally disabled, I realized at 14 or 15 that I have no role models,” he said.
It was at this time that he picked up a copy of, “The Power of Now,” by Eckhart Tolle, and then read “The Four Agreements,” by Don Miguel Ruiz. A final favorite in his life-shifting trilogy? “The Alchemist,” by Paulo Coelho.
Estrella earned his GED at 16 and started working. First it was flipping burgers, then construction work. At 18, he was homeless with his older sister and her boyfriend, sleeping in a tent wherever they could pitch it, or in her car.
But eventually he recalled telling his sister: “We can’t just stay here. We need to do something.” They began going to the public library to research jobs. Estrella eventually started a canvassing position, signing people up to support Save the Children. He discovered he’s a good sales person.
“I gained a lot of confidence, and found being persuasive and inspirational came very easy to me,” he said.
As Estrella has grown older, he’s come to appreciate that his mother had a difficult childhood, and he’s come to understand the challenges she faced living with a serious mental illness.
“One of the biggest things I carry is that my mom worked so hard, and it was almost impossible,” he said. “It gave me this mindset that I have no excuses.”
Note: This article was updated on Monday, Oct. 31.