Yesterday morning the Seattle Times published an article regarding the City of Seattle’s performance standards for our homeless response system and emergency shelter services. The article referenced YouthCare’s CEO, Melinda Giovengo, who participated in an interview in an effort to provide accountability and transparency—as she, and YouthCare—have always done. Unfortunately, the complexity of the issue, and the richness of the conversation, were not fully represented in the article, and we’d like to provide some additional information.

YouthCare is committed to performance accountability and high-quality care to ensure that young people obtain safe housing and have the tools and skills to gain long-term stability. We are grateful for the ongoing support the City has extended to YouthCare’s daily work and mission to end youth homelessness. The City’s performance standards are intended to help our homeless response system run effectively and achieve successful housing outcomes for people experiencing the trauma of homelessness. We support these goals. This has been showcased over time through a long and collaborative relationship with the City, focused on ensuring that—together—we can provide excellent, innovative, and impactful programming for the homeless individuals and families in our community.

One example is centered in YouthCare’s work to provide shelter for young adults age 18- 24 at both YouthCare’s Orion Center and our Jackson Street location. Recently, the shelter at the Orion Center moved from a nightly lottery system (or emergency bed), to a model where a young person has a guaranteed space for an extended period (transitional bed). This change was motivated by both direct feedback from young people who were craving consistency, as well as YouthCare’s own goal to leverage the new performance standards and bring innovations to our services.

This “enhanced” shelter model ensures that youth have increased stability—getting them out of survival mode—and are able to work with our team to build an individual plan for success, meet goals, and obtain long-term housing. We are excited to share that this shift is showing early success. The service-rich space is helping young people take attainable steps forward and build a thriving future. As part of a larger overall homelessness system response, this aspect of care for young people is essential.

Data attributed to these shelters, and identifying successes, has complexity. Each location has two types of shelter services: 1) the emergency beds and 2) the transitional beds. This accounts for four total programs reflected in the data (and referenced in the article)—but not four distinct emergency shelters. The two-step structure inside of both shelters is working exactly as intended, where young people with repeat stays in emergency beds are able to access transition beds as they become available—and ultimately move toward the goals of stability and permanent housing. However, this sequential movement forward does not count towards overall positive outcomes. In reaching out to the City for a dialogue, the goal was to work together on balanced solutions and accountability to ensure we were accurately capturing progress and the impact of investment.

The two other shelters referenced by the Times article (6 total) include YouthCare’s emergency shelters for minors, ages 12 to 17. The goal for both these locations is to ensure youth in our care can stay engaged with school, stabilize, and whenever it is possible and safe, reunite with family. Given the circumstances under which youth of this age come into our care, a safe or speedy return to family is not always possible. Yet, an exit to permanent housing is challenging for someone as young as 12 or 13-years-old and transitions to foster care, a transitional living program, or even to a college dormitory do not qualify as a “successful exit,” despite being age-appropriate. This limitation causes us to continue to focus on family connections and keep a strong dialogue open about what is a fitting definition of success.

The majority of the City’s funding priorities are tied to the Pathways Home plan, born out of comprehensive research of Seattle’s homelessness response system and the recommendations for progress (and City investments) that followed. However, the pathway to stability for families and adults is inherently different than that of a young person. Youth and young adults experiencing homelessness are nearly always navigating life circumstances they did not create, and enter homelessness to escape abuse, poverty, or rejection. For young people, there is still a need to build skills (both soft and technical), as well as confidence and resiliency to gain long-term stability and evolve into adulthood. We cannot expect the exact same needs or pathways to success for a teenager and a middle-aged adult.

Many of the City’s performance standards are new or have dramatically increased in scope or scale. YouthCare is ardently working—as we have for more than forty years—to ensure that every day our services help young people focus on the incremental steps that lead to the outcome of gaining long-term stability. We are also learning from our own data, sharing best practices with our peers, leadership at the City, and our friends in the community.

Ultimately, we must also contend with the reality of a region where the cost of living and housing have grown exponentially and know that we have yet to activate a scale of support or response that brings the level of solution we are all hopeful for. Until we add more affordable housing stock, immediately exiting people into housing will continue to be a challenge—no matter how efficiently the system runs. YouthCare is committed to working with our youth providers and our colleagues at the City to share feedback, make improvements to our system, and collectively hold ourselves accountable.