Youth homelessness is a topic many of us avoid because of the stigma and discomfort it causes. Growing up in a primarily white, affluent, rural town reinforced this “don’t look, don’t talk about it” attitude toward homelessness. While that is a great way to preserve the happy bubble of privilege some people enjoy, it is less effective in addressing the problem of housing insecurity.
On the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state, resources available to young people experiencing homelessness are few and far between. In the town I grew up in, there is one homeless shelter for people 18 and older that is only open during the winter. Many kids experiencing homelessness are left to their own devices. Many will couch surf so that they have a warm place to sleep (which disqualifies them from being considered “homeless”), or get sent out of the county, where there are more resources available.
When I was kicked out of my godparents’ house at 17 years old, I had to move to Olympia to find housing with extended family members. At certain points, I slept in my car. What helped me make it through my rocky adolescence were my peers and their families, as well as human services professionals such as therapists, juvenile justice professionals and medication providers.
Having lived in both Jefferson and Clallam counties, I’ve worked with professionals in the juvenile justice, behavioral healthcare and social welfare fields. I’ve made friends who have had to navigate these complex systems. Each brings a unique perspective regarding homelessness and what needs to change. Here’s what they have to say. Passages have been edited for clarity.
-Tessie Ottaway-Chung, Youth Voice Contributor, Fostering Media Connections
Jenna Heil, she/her, Wraparound with Intensive Services (WISe) Care Coordinator
I was homeless in my 20s for about a year — lived in my car for a year with my boyfriend (now husband). My daughter (then 4 years old) stayed a couple of nights in the car with me as well. We bounced around from house to house staying on friend’s couches when we could, and passed my daughter off to friends and family so she didn’t have to stay in the car with me.
I got help through drug court, which gave me access to the homeless cabins. OlyCAP, a local nonprofit that helps people access housing and resources, helped get me into one of the women’s cabins originally and [my husband] into one of the men’s cabins. Eventually, we were able to get into one of the family cabins where we stayed there for a little over a year. Finally, a subsidized apartment through OlyCAP opened up and we signed up for the Family Self-Sufficiency program — they took a portion of rent that was paid and put it into a savings account through Peninsula Housing Authority. Almost four years later, we wound up exceeding the income limit of the program and graduating with almost $20,000 saved. We used that to buy a house!
I recently experienced working with homeless youth. It’s hard to find housing for youth in the area — there are no programs available. I have to find friends’ or relatives’ houses for them to stay at. There are no programs in this county and no shelters available — no DCYF case was open, so DCYF wasn’t able to help find a foster placement to house this youth. The youth went hungry for days before coming to me for help. They slept on the beach for days without saying anything. They were without cell phones before we bought them service.
I wish there was a shelter available for youth in the area, even just a few beds available. We don’t get this situation very often, but when we do, it’s very difficult to find options. It’s frustrating when there are no friends or family who can take the youth in and support them, and DCYF or juvenile justice can’t help.
26-year old male living in Jefferson County, Washington
I wouldn’t really have much expertise on the resources available. I was on drugs at that time. I was getting food and cash benefits while I waited for a decision on my disability, which took years. I had to pay back the cash benefits when I was approved. At some point I was able to get a tent and a sleeping bag with a voucher, maybe more than once, from that housing place [OlyCAP].
They had lists for low-income housing or whatever, but I basically had no income, and I never made an honest effort to get on any lists. If you are supposed to pay 30% of your income or whatever, sliding scale, but you just don’t have income, you won’t qualify for half of the housing that’s available … The homeless shelter was real weird about housing me as a young, “fit” person. They kind of said, like, “this is for old/disabled people. You’re neither.”
I had to tell them about being in the process of applying for disability. They still tried to insist that I report attempts to find work, but I just kind of talked my way around. Young people need jobs. If you’re not working, you better be applying for disability. If you’re not applying for disability, you better have a support network buddy, or you’re fucked. Disability takes years.
I don’t think it’s a hard place to be a young person. There are lots of entry-level jobs, one of the highest minimum wages in the country. Rooms are still relatively affordable, back in the day when you could find them. If someone can get a van or a truck or something, they can hit the food bank, and get on food benefits. They should be alright.
Kelli Parcher, she/her, Proctor House detention manager
My ability to support youth and families at risk of homelessness or experiencing homelessness is hindered by a lack of resources in our community. It’s also based on poverty level. The ability to get into state-funded programs has a very long waiting list and can mean a youth or family may not be served for up to six weeks or longer. We only have one provider for each resource in the community, which doesn’t allow for any diversity or options. The other struggle is all of the community programs often are fighting for the same dollars to keep their programs running administratively, as well as for services for clients.
Our community has been working together more efficiently in the last year to try to figure out how we can do more work as a community as opposed to individual agencies. The states and the federal government are also starting to specifically look at grant funding for rural communities, which will help our process. It will allow our community to serve our rural population in a more holistic way. I would expect some community response based on grants (because nothing happens fast) within the next two to five years.
Our community has received some rural grants and are working together to use those toward working with the homeless and at-risk-of homelessness population. It is great to have everyone at the table working toward the same cause.