by Tyler Mangrum
- The Capitol Hill Times -
In a culture where people are taught that self-determination is all that’s required for success, the causes of homelessness are often written off as being black and white: those who find themselves living on the streets deserve it, and if they have the willpower, they will find their way out of it. But for Mark, a former student at Seattle Central Community College who found himself homeless as a teenager, that mentality is part of the problem.
“I didn’t think I could succeed. I didn’t think school was a place for me,” Mark said. “I thought, ‘I’m homeless and I’m a drunk, and I’m feeling like crap about myself. [The other students] have their lives together, and they’re going to go have coffee after class and talk about logic, and it’s going to be all good. I’m going to go home to a shelter.’ I was very scared.”
Despite his feelings of worthlessness, Mark found a helping hand that gave him the resources he needed to pull himself up again after visiting YouthCare’s James W. Ray Orion Center on Capitol Hill, which helped him get his degree and break his chemical dependency.
“It was always this incremental thing for me,” Mark said. “I needed to start here. I needed support. I needed to ask whether or not I could succeed. And they were telling me I could do it. And I would try to do it… and then I’d figure out, ‘Oh, I can do it.’”
As one of only two youth-oriented centers in the region, the James W. Orion Center helps the homeless get off of the streets through a range of services that include providing meals and housing services, as well as education and employment opportunities. But, even with stories like Mark’s, the continuing effects of the federal government’s belt-tightening took its toll on YouthCare, the iconic Capitol Hill center, after the organization learned that two of the federal grants crucial to the center’s operation would not be renewed.
“The federal street outreach program grant that we lost in October 2013 was for $150,000, about 30 percent of our total outreach and drop-in services cost,” said Liz Trautman, YouthCare’s Marketing and Communications Coordinator. “Outreach and drop-in services are part of our basic services program, which includes street outreach, meals, drop-in hours, and case management. These services are really the ‘front door’ into many of the other programs at YouthCare – we engage young people and earn their trust by meeting their basic needs; only then can we work on helping them identify and work towards other goals.”
According to Trautman, this front door for homeless youth is crucial to their mission, as many of the people who come in looking for a meal end up with connections to the housing and educational services that the center provides. Without the ability to engage homeless youth on the street, many may never have access to their services at all, and ultimately leaves hundreds of homeless youth out in the cold.
“The loss of funding would mean reduced hours, fewer outreach trips, fewer trips to the 45th Street Medical Clinic for low-cost treatment, reduced opportunities for getting a State ID, which is needed for a lot of jobs, and general cuts to basic needs services like food and shelter,” Trautman said.
But not everyone in Washington, D.C. is ready to see support for homeless services reduced. Washington State Senator Patty Murray announced her support for renewing the $1 million in federal grants for YouthCare and keeping the James W. Ray Orion Center running at full capacity.
“For nearly 40 years, YouthCare has been a local leader in providing services for runaway and homeless youth in the community. YouthCare has successfully provided a continuum of immediate and long-term services to homeless youth.” Murray wrote in a letter to George Sheldon, Acting Assistant Secretary for the US Department of Health and Human Services. “YouthCare has received RHY support from the Administration for Children and Families since 1974. With this federal partnership, YouthCare will be able to continue its extraordinary services to young people in Seattle.”
However, even with the federal government reducing their support for the center in 2014, the gaps for this year’s budget were filled in through the support of the community and private donations. But with the future of the center beyond 2014 unclear, Trautman said that donations of any kind go a long way to helping the center succeed in its mission, whether its money, non-perishable food, clothing, or even deodorant. Most importantly, Trautman hopes that people will remember the stories from people like Mark, and that the causes of homelessness aren’t always as simple as people may think.
“The reality is that there are a lot of reasons why young people end up homeless,” Trautman said. “Some fall through the cracks, and in this economy and this city, 18-24 year olds have a hard time finding any kind of employment or affordable housing. No one is on the streets by choice.”