New program visits Everett, targets youth homelessness

EVERETT — Tracy Nakayiza, a senior at Mountlake Terrace High School, recently told a group of political and nonprofit leaders what being homeless meant to her.

“For about a year I was family-hopping,” said Nakayiza, 17. A dispute with her legal guardian resulted in her being sent back to Uganda, where she was born but hadn’t lived since she was 9.

She raised the money to come back to the United States herself, but there wasn’t much she could do without her guardian’s consent.

“That year I was homeless, I didn’t get a lot done. I was flat-lining. I could barely get through school,” Nakayiza said.

Now she lives at Everett-based Cocoon House. She said having a place to come home to is good for the structure it imposes on her life, from getting homework done to having someone keeping track of her whereabouts.

“It’s nice because I can just be a teenager, and I like it,” she said.

Nakayiza is doing better with Cocoon House’s support, but in many respects, she’s the exception that proves the rule among her peers. She was well-dressed, poised, and willing to share her story with a roomful of strangers.

The 2016 Point in Time count identified 111 people in Snohomish County under the age of 25 who were either without shelter or in a precarious short-term housing situation. That doesn’t include somebody like Nakayiza, who has a place to stay at Cocoon House.

Cassie Franklin, Cocoon House’s CEO, said those youth are dealing with a myriad of issues, including heroin use or other addictions, sexual exploitation or abuse, mental health problems or just dealing with trauma inflicted on them at an early age.

“Developmentally, they may be 16, but they’re going on 10,” Franklin said.

The latest state budget contains about $18 million in funding related to preventing youth homelessness, crisis response and education. For the first time, the budget also contains funding earmarked for young adults ages 18-24, said Kim Justice, the executive director of the state Office of Homeless Youth Prevention and Protection.

The year-old office is charged with providing strategic advice to the various branches of the state government and with administering funding to programs.

Several programs that used to be run out of the Department of Social and Health Services are now housed under Youth Homelessness, such as temporary residence programs like Cocoon House.

“State government has a significant role to play in addressing youth homelessness, but the office isn’t going to solve this problem alone,” Justice said.

Another new statewide initiative, called A Way Home Washington, seeks to raise the profile of youth homelessness as an issue and coordinate the nonprofit sector to achieve better results. It also will be able to better leverage private donations, Justice said.

“We need to change the image stereotypes the public has of homeless youth,” said Trudi Inslee, co-chairwoman of the initiative and also Washington’s first lady.

“Ideally we want to prevent this from happening in the first place,” Inslee said.

Sonya Campion, president of her family foundation, the Campion Advocacy Fund, said state leadership also was important to ensure the youth homelessness initiative would succeed. The foundation is one of the major financial backers of A Way Home Washington.

“We knew we couldn’t get anything without getting the big levers to work,” Campion said.

The meet-up at the Spirit of Grace United Methodist Church in Everett was billed as a stop on a “listening tour,” that Inslee, Campion and Justice were taking across the state to talk with people working on youth homelessness. Similar events were held in Yakima, Tacoma and Vancouver.

The discussion included general strategy and a number of specific issues youth struggle with, such as whether obtaining a GED is preferable to attending a high school completion program.

One issue of major concern is that youth between ages 18-24 do not have as many services available to them, as there are for younger children.

Cocoon House, which is planning a major expansion, only has 41 beds, mostly reserved for youth under 18, Franklin said.

At the same time, there are 224 young adults ages 18-24 on a waiting list for housing in Snohomish County, she said. They might have a short-term housing arrangement, but not what could be considered a permanent home.

Hil Kaman, a former city prosecutor now leading Everett’s homeless housing initiative, said that the criminal justice system doesn’t distinguish between that demographic and adults.

“When you turn 18 and you’re in the criminal justice system, there’s nothing in the system for you,” Kaman said. “You don’t even get seen.”

Even Everett’s plan to build a supportive housing project has focused only on meeting the needs of those who are considered chronically homeless, regardless of age, he said.

Only $787,000 of the Office of Youth Homelessness’s budget is directed to the new Young Adult Housing Program targeting that demographic, but it’s an improvement, Justice said.

“Previously there was none,” Justice said.

What happens next is compiling what was learned on the listening tour to help plan a statewide strategy, Justice said.

What is clear is that the state won’t be going it alone.

“What A Way Home Washington does is create the movement we need,” Justice said.

Chris Winters: 425-374-4165; Twitter: @Chris_At_Herald.

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