But youth service providers not included

For more than 20 years, Seattle and King County have struggled to respond to the city’s homelessness crisis, which has grown to include more than 11,700 unsheltered people. A new government entity promises a fresh approach that has many advocates optimistic, but has left youth housing providers worried it may overlook their unique needs and priorities.

The King County Regional Homelessness Authority, a partnership between the county and Seattle, will be in charge of coordinating the region’s response to homelessness to reduce duplication and inefficiencies, address racial inequalities, and center those with lived experience of homelessness in its operations.

“I use this word wildly, but this is revolutionary,” said Tess Colby, a senior advisor on homelessness to Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan. “We’re saying the experts are those who are experiencing homelessness.”

The regional authority will operate through three levels — a governing board, comprised mainly of elected officials, an implementation board that will act like a board of directors, and an advisory committee. More than a dozen current or formerly homeless people, youth and adults, have been named to sit on the authority’s boards and committees.

The authority’s formation hasn’t been without some disagreement; recent concerns come from youth service providers, the agencies that deliver frontline care for the youngest people on the streets. They are absent from the lineup of advisers on the King County Regional Homelessness Authority. Six of the 19 members of the advisory committee come from organizations that serve homeless adults or families.

King County Executive Dow Constantine and Seattle Mayor Jenny A. Durkan announcing plans for the new regional homelessness authority in September of 2019. Photo courtesy of City of Seattle

At a meeting last month of the board that was determining the advisory committee, Melinda Giovengo, the executive director of the service provider YouthCare, was the lone no vote on the slate of 19 people being considered as advisers to the new authority. She opposed the slate after consulting with other providers because none of the candidates represented agencies serving unaccompanied homeless youth. In the meeting’s Zoom chat, Giovengo described concerns that there would be “no one familiar with the complexity of funding and operations issues” youth service providers face.  

Young people who are homeless have needs and barriers to receiving help that are unique to their age and stage of development. Typically, they have been impacted by, and can be served through more than one public agency, from the foster care and juvenile justice systems to behavioral health and school authorities. Their challenges to stability are also unique: They typically lack jobs, credit and rental histories, as well as the basic skills needed to make it on their own. 

According to the January 2020 point-in-time count, there are more than 11,750 homeless people in Seattle and King County. That number, which precedes the devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, has grown by 1,750 people since 2015, when local authorities declared homelessness a state of emergency.

The number of homeless people of all ages will surely increase dramatically when the next count takes place next year — a tally that will include the impacts of the global pandemic and the end of Seattle’s moratorium on rental evictions, which expires on Dec. 31.

The number of unaccompanied homeless youth in a community is a vital indicator, and the 955 young people counted on the Seattle-area streets in January represent a glimpse into the future ranks of homeless people. More than a fifth of those included in the most recent count first experienced homelessness before age 18, while nearly half had not reached age 25.

We have to focus on adults, families, veterans and the chronically homeless, but with youth and young adults, you have an opportunity to prevent future homelessness,” said Mark Putnam, who heads the Y Social Impact Center at the YMCA, which has one of the largest youth and young adult housing programs in Seattle.

Shoshana Wineburg, the director of public policy and communications at YouthCare, said her organization sees many benefits with the new consolidated authority, particularly a more streamlined system that centers the voices of people with lived experience. But because youth and young adults need a different approach, she and other youth service providers fear critical viewpoints are being left out. To address that, they will propose that the new regional authority create an office of homeless youth, similar to the one at the state level.

King County and Seattle have tried various approaches to ending the homelessness crisis over decades. In 2005, they formed the Committee to End Homelessness and announced a 10-year plan. In 2015, an entity named All Home was formed, with the strategy of making homelessness “rare, brief and one-time” by 2019. 

Last year, with much fanfare, All Home launched a campaign to end youth and young adult homelessness by 2021, a goal the county put on “pause” only six months after a video of a respected transgender entertainer invited to speak and perform at the organization’s annual luncheon went viral.

Beyoncé Black St James told the audience about the challenges transgender women of color face with barriers to stable housing, and she described her own recent experience of being homeless for seven months. After a quick change, she busted out a dance with sexually suggestive moves in a sheer-topped bodysuit with pasties.

She left the show thinking it was a success — the audience had clapped, cheered and tipped her. When the video went viral, St James, who is Puerto Rican and Black, was targeted online with sexual harassment, homophobic slurs, racist insults and death threats.

As a result of her All Home engagement, the Spokane resident found her tarnished reputation and loss of income nearly pushed her back into homelessness. 

“I’m still suffering,” she said in an interview with The Imprint. “I feel like I was set up and betrayed.”

After the luncheon, King County officials put All Home’s acting director on administrative leave and she subsequently resigned due to that performance. Over the next few months, most of the rest of the staff left and wasn’t replaced. All Home’s dissolution was expected, though not quite so quickly. 

Beyoncé Black St James: “I feel like I was set up and betrayed.” Photo courtesy of St James

The latest attempt, the formation of the new regional authority, evolved after a 2018 King County Auditor’s Office report found the county’s homelessness programs were fragmented and “too weak to drive change.” The report also said All Home lacked “the authority to unify local funders into an efficient and nimble crisis response system.” 

In response, Seattle Mayor Durkan and King County Executive Dow Constantine hired consultants and convened working groups to find another approach. In September 2019, they announced the new authority.

The urgency is perhaps greater now than ever to get it right in the epicenter of Washington state’s homeless population, during the nation’s most devastating public health crisis in recent history. 

And there is plenty of praise for the new regional authority’s lineup, and its prospects for success. The Lived Experience Coalition, a group of homeless and formerly homeless people formed in 2018, provided recommendations for many of the leadership and advisory posts. Of the 19 people on the advisory board, 13 have been homeless, including three young adults, and nine others have experience speaking on behalf of homeless youth and young adults. 

“It is unprecedented to have people with lived experience at the table in a meaningful way — not being tokenized, but at the table having power,” said LaMont Green, who has experienced homelessness and worked for All Home on behalf of youth. Green is now co-chair of the Lived Experience Coalition. He says of the new regional authority, I am very, very hopeful, more hopeful than I was two years ago.”

Participants include many people representing communities disproportionately affected by homelessness: five of 19 are Native American and an additional six are Black.

“There’s incredible expertise,” said Colleen Echohawk, the executive director of the Chief Seattle Club and co-chair of the All Home Coordinating Board that voted on the advisory committee at the November public meeting. “We’re adding a tremendous amount of experience that we didn’t have before.”

See original article by Elizabeth Amon for the Imprint here