She had been homeless and struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts over three difficult years, when Elsa St Clair was released in January from an Idaho psychiatric hospital.
Today, the 24-year-old enjoys a reliable internet connection in a Spokane apartment that she’s decorated with the flag of Eastern Washington University, where she hopes to study nursing. In preparation for her future career, she is about to start an online phlebotomy class. And amid all the changes in her life, she also serves on a youth advisory board to support other unhoused young people.
“I hit the ground running,” Elsa said.
Spokane County is one of four counties participating in Washington state’s Anchor Community Initiative, designed to help young people like Elsa. Launched in 2018 with the lofty goal of ending unaccompanied youth and young adult homelessness in those counties by 2022, the program is funded by foundations and the state’s Office of Homeless Youth.
There are between 13,000 and 15,000 unaccompanied homeless youth and young adults across the state, according to A Way Home Washington, which runs the Anchor Community Initiative. In addition to Spokane, the pilot program is now focused on Pierce, Yakima and Walla Walla counties, but plans to eventually expand statewide.
In the first phase, the initiative requires the counties to identify, by name, all unaccompanied youth and young adults between the ages of 12 and 24 experiencing homelessness. Data on their activity and movements for three consecutive months are recorded, such as who has entered or left a program. Communities collect data on what programs are utilized by young people to track which services actually prevent or end an episode of homelessness.
The initiative received funding in the 2019 legislative session, with a $4 million allocation to the Office of Homeless Youth, money divided equally between the four counties.
In Spokane, where Elsa now lives, Anchor program administrators estimate there are between 190 and 230 unaccompanied youth and young adults who are homeless each month. Up to 40% of Washington’s homeless young people are lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender or queer, according to their estimates.
Elsa, who asked to be identified by her chosen name, was born in Wenatchee, Washington, and grew up there, and in an Idaho town north of Boise. Her mother died when she was 7 years old and she lived with her father, with whom she had a rocky relationship, she said in a recent interview. She struggled in high school but at age 18, enrolled in Job Corps, a federal residential vocational training program and earned her GED.
Elsa described Job Corps as opening new worlds for her, and it was during this time, in 2015 and 2016, that she came out as transgender. “I was surrounded by a community of people where I could express myself,” she said. “I didn’t have to hide who I was.”
After she came out, however, things only got worse with her father. “He disowned me and didn’t want to have anything — like anything — to do with me,” she said, echoing the experience of many young people who end up on the streets.
Dogged by depression, Elsa was committed several times to psychiatric hospitals. Struggling to make her way in Idaho at the time, she worked in a series of construction and fast food restaurant jobs, sleeping at night in homeless shelters. Though she identified as a woman, the shelters would only house her with the men.
After she left Idaho’s State Hospital North and discovered the last shelter she’d stayed at had thrown out all of her belongings, Elsa said she’d had it with Idaho.
In Washington, she landed at the Volunteers of America’s Hope House, a women’s shelter in Spokane, with little more than the clothes on her back. But she soon thrived, according to interviews with Elsa and those who have come to know her — connecting to the community, helping at the shelters and facilities where she lived, and using her strength and resilience to take advantage of opportunities.
She said she felt the once-crippling grip of depression ease in the new setting of the women’s shelter, and she reached a new plateau: “I was never hospitalized.”
Bringing Homelessness to ‘Functional Zero’
The Anchor Community Initiative defines ending homelessness as bringing the number of unhoused people to a “functional zero,” meaning that when youth ask for help, communities have the resources to respond immediately with housing options.
“We call it ‘Yes to Yes,’” said Jim Theofelis, executive director at A Way Home Washington. “I’m not saying that there will never be a teenager under a bridge in crisis, but when that teenager says ‘Yes, I’ll come inside,’ we can say ‘Yes, come inside for safe housing and a path forward.’”
Theofelis said the strategy is based on a model created by the national nonprofit Community Solutions, which has had success in reaching “functional zero” with veteran and chronic homeless populations in 13 U.S. communities. The Anchor Community Initiative, is “one of the first in the country to customize the model for youth and young adults as well requiring sexual identity and race equity data,” he added. “We cannot end youth homelessness without addressing the fact that young people of color and LGBTQ+ young people are way over-represented in the homeless youth population. We must end the disproportionality to end youth and young adult homelessness.”
Theofelis said that despite challenges from COVID-19, the program is still mostly on track: “This is an incredibly robust goal and I think we’re going to need every minute, but I do think we’ll get at least two or three counties across the finish line by Dec. 31, 2022, at 11:59 p.m.”
With a $1 million grant to work in Spokane County, the Volunteers of America deployed a two-pronged approach to expanding its services, said Bridget Cannon, the director of youth services. The organization added 12 new apartments with two caseworkers to its existing 22 apartments for young adults.
They also created an “inreach program,” Cannon said, providing assistance to schools, behavioral health facilities and other youth service providers, to prevent homelessness from taking root. Such efforts include everything from providing emergency funds for rent or car repairs, to help with a resume or job application.
Youth Improving the Process
If things continue to stay on track for Elsa, it appears she will be among those successfully housed. In June, Volunteers of America moved her into one of its apartments for transitional living. At the same time, Elsa became active in the Anchor Community Initiative programs, including the youth advisory board, where she works alongside dozens of Spokane advocates and housing providers who meet regularly to tackle the difficulties faced by homeless youth and young adults.
“We’ve worked together almost six months now and Elsa is a fantastic young adult leader,” said Cecily Ferguson, the Spokane Anchor Community Initiative coordinator. “Elsa has lived experience with housing instability, she’s a good advocate, asks really good questions and is a critical thinker.”
Ferguson credited Elsa with providing leadership to improve the process for keeping young people engaged with service providers. It began with administrators finding they often lost track of homeless youth after they completed their initial entry assessment.
Elsa and other members of the Youth Advisory Board provided critical feedback about why: They found the assessment process confusing and unclear on the next steps. The youth advisers helped design a new form, and Elsa suggested the addition of a bar code that can be read with a scanner app on a cellphone — allowing youth to more seamlessly receive information through page links to service providers and community resources.
Ferguson said in a test of the new follow-up form there was an 85% reduction in the number of young people who went missing after the initial assessment date.
While Elsa and other young people are paid for their work with the Anchor initiative, it means more than a paycheck to her.
“I feel proud, but not just proud — I’m serving a community with my experience,” she said. “And I like that we are changing things for the better for upcoming homeless youth.”