Cocoon House deploys mannequins to reach out to homeless teens

Somebody is sitting there. Outside Silver Cup Coffee in downtown Everett, there’s a kid hanging out in the sunshine. It’s too hot for a sweatshirt and jeans, but the teen’s hoody has a message: “My Mom’s Boyfriend Hurts Me.”

Look closer. There’s nobody sitting there. The figure in jeans, sweatshirt and sneakers has no face.

It’s a mannequin, one of the “Somebodies” appearing around town as part of a Cocoon House campaign aimed at making people more aware of teen homelessness. Called “Take a Closer Look,” the display was launched last week when the figures were placed outside the Snohomish County Courthouse.

Now, they have been moved to places serving as partners with Cocoon House, a nonprofit that provides shelter and other services to at-risk teens in Snohomish County. The Everett Public Library, Sno-Isle Natural Foods Co-op, Silver Cup Coffee and Xfinity Arena are among Everett locations with Somebodies on display.

Sweatshirt slogans amplify the plight of homeless kids. “I’m 12 and Hungry,” “My Dad Kicked Me Out Because I’m Gay” and “I’m Missing and My Parents Don’t Care” are some of the mannequins’ messages.

Tanya Burgess is a real somebody. At 25, she’s on the Cocoon House board of directors. She works as a medical assistant for Dr. Bill Huang, an orthopaedic surgeon at Everett Bone &Joint. A decade ago, she was a homeless girl who had left a troubled home and sometimes lived on the street.

“Home wasn’t safe,” said Burgess, who recalled violence, a threat with a gun, and a mother “not in good shape to take care of me.”

At 14, she left home. She called Cocoon House, and a teen advocate from the agency drove to Snohomish to pick her up. At the shelter, she found care and structure. That wasn’t always to her liking. Burgess said she was in and out of Cocoon House. “I came and went. I had a total of 16 exits,” she said, because sometimes it was hard to follow rules or give up what seemed like freedom.

“At times I lived on the streets. I lived in hotels, or I would stay on the bus just to be somewhere warm,” she said. At one point, she was sleeping on the floor of a place where others were using methamphetamine. “That was not a fun time,” Burgess said. Yet with all the risky people and places, she said she didn’t fall into the drug trap.

By 16, with the support of Cocoon House, she was serious about a better future. She earned a GED, had a fast-food job, and attended Bryman College, which later became Everest College. It took years, but she has paid off her medical assistant education loan.

She had hoped to live again with her mother, whose situation had improved, but her mom died when she was 17. Burgess remembers Cocoon House as a haven that became a home.

“It was family,” she said. “I got the real sense of what it’s supposed to be like. People at Cocoon House are still role models. It gives a lot of kids strength and hope to want to do well.”

Julio Cortes, Cocoon House’s public relations manager, said the Somebodies are modeled after a similar campaign organized by Bellefaire JCB, a youth services organization in the Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights, Ohio.

“It gives people the opportunity to be aware of youth homelessness. They look like any other teen,” he said. “Any kid can become homeless. They may run away or get kicked out, or be involved with drugs. It can happen to any family.”

Cortes helped make the Somebodies. “It took quite a bit of work,” he said. It involved wrapping a real person in tape, both with the sticky side up and sticky side down, to create a cast. He said the “teen-sized” models included his wife, Lindsay. The tape cast was snipped away with scissors, then retaped and stuffed with newspaper.

“We work with these kids every day,” Cortes said. “I just hope people become more aware, and we shed a little bit of light on our youth.”

Along with Somebodies in hoodies, partner sites are displaying informational graphics about the issue and ways to help. A website, www.savesnocokids.org, links to a Cocoon House donation page.

“It’s a very gentle way of starting the conversation,” said Erin Treat, marketing manager for Sno-Isle Natural Foods Co-op. A Somebody will soon be on view at the grocery on Grand Avenue. “It’s hard to be anywhere with no support, but being homeless is extra hard,” Treat said.

Looking like any kid in a sweatshirt and jeans, a homeless teen is nearly invisible — but not to one who has been there.

“When I see kids on the street, it’s easy for me to recognize. I lived it,” Burgess said.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

Learn more

The nonprofit Cocoon House serves homeless and at-risk teens and young adults in Snohomish County. Services include housing, street outreach, homelessness prevention, and parent support. Information: www.cocoonhouse.org

Information on “Take a Closer Look” campaign: www.savesnocokids.org

Teens needing help may call Cocoon House Safe Place hotline: 425-877-5171

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