Get to Know a Grantee: YouthCare
YouthCare has been helping youth and young adults experiencing homelessness in Seattle for nearly 50 years. YouthCare offers a comprehensive range of services including prevention, shelter, housing, education, and employment training. YouthCare has been a leader not only in its home community, but also in the national effort to prevent and end youth homelessness.
YouthCare’s long-term success is rooted in its commitment to helping young people facing homelessness thrive in all areas of their lives and the organization’s ability to quickly adopt new approaches when conditions change. This has been vital in its continued efforts to address racial equity and justice and to support the local community in the fight against COVID-19. Representatives from FYSB talked with YouthCare twice as the pandemic unfolded, first in June 2020, and then again in May 2021.
In June 2020, representatives from FYSB’s National Clearinghouse on Homeless Youth and Families (NCHYF) spoke with Shoshana Wineburg, YouthCare’s Director of Public Policy and Communications to learn about the organization’s history, strengths, and challenges—including its response to the COVID-19 pandemic and growing calls by the young people it serves for racial equity and justice.
Can you tell us a bit about YouthCare’s history and partners?
YouthCare was one of the first RHY program grantees on the West Coast to start an RHY shelter. Our first FYSB grant came in 1974, the first year of eligibility. Our origin is in addressing the RHY population.
We’re trying to provide comprehensive, holistic services that not only meet young people’s basic needs but also provide access to opportunities to pursue their passions. To do that, we partner with a ton of different agencies like Kaiser Permanente, mental health and substance abuse counseling agencies, legal aid agencies, and post-secondary support agencies. We also have partnerships with local hunger relief agencies, Seattle public schools (their teachers come and teach on-site and our case managers are embedded within different school programs), and employers who have helped get youth internships. We pay young people for those internships so they can get job experience. Everything is about helping young people achieve their dreams and goals.
About 75 percent of our funding is public, including from FYSB and other federal, local, and state sources. We get a lot of funding from the City of Seattle. The Washington State Office for Homeless Youth is our primary source of funding for our under-18 shelters. Many different federal sources contribute to YouthCare as well, including the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Health and Human Services, as well as the Department of Justice and the Department of Education, which fund our trafficking and employment training programs. The other 25 percent comes from private donors and foundations.
What sets YouthCare apart from other similar organizations?
Today, we’re still the only provider in Seattle that serves minors experiencing homelessness. We have three shelters for minors: a 12-bed shelter for RHY; a 14-bed shelter for the same population; and a third shelter for unaccompanied, undocumented minors, funded through the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement.
We also have a robust and broad continuum of care, offering short, medium, and long-term housing, with case management in each program. That includes emergency shelters for young people ages 18 to 24, several Transitional Living Programs (TLPs) that are residential homes in the city (including the only TLP for minors in King County), and independent living programs where young people have their own apartments. And we parallel the continuum of housing services with education and employment services that help young people maintain their housing long term. Once a young person finds safety and stability, we support them in assessing and achieving their goals for education, employment, and wellness. Our employment training programs range from low-to high-barrier programs to match young people’s skills and abilities at the moment.
What do you wish more people in your community (or the country) understood about youth homelessness?
I wish more people understood the structural factors that lead to youth homelessness, particularly institutionalized racism. About two-thirds of the youth we serve are people of color. We have to talk about the impacts of racism in every system and how that connects to homelessness. When we talk about housing, we have to talk about racial covenants, redlining, and the lack of access to home ownership—a historic legacy that persists today. For example, when Amazon originally moved to Seattle, you saw a huge population surge and housing shortage and a lot of Black and Brown communities were gentrified and pushed out. Those communities now have much less access to home ownership and housing, and that has to be part of the conversation about who has a home.
When we talk about education—and the fact that youth without a high school diploma or GED have a more than three times higher risk of experiencing homelessness—we have to talk about a school system supported by property taxes in predominately segregated neighborhoods, and the fact that Black and Brown youth are disproportionately suspended, expelled, and pushed into the school-to-prison pipeline.
When we talk about foster care—and about how one-third of King County youth and young adults experiencing homelessness have exited the foster care system—we have to think about the history of the field of social work and what type of ideologies informed conceptions about who was “fit” to be a parent. When we talk about parental abuse and neglect, why aren’t we talking about systemic abuse and neglect? About how our systems destroy families by incarcerating one out of every three Black men in America, and how they punish single mothers for “neglecting” their children when there’s no affordable childcare and they have to work multiple jobs because the minimum wage doesn’t even come close to the cost of living. “Neglect” in the child welfare system is so often the manifestation of structural poverty and racism. All of these systems are pipelines to homelessness, and they target Black and Brown families.
Young people are vulnerable in normal times, but COVID-19 made that situation even more difficult. How has this virus impacted your work and how are you adjusting?
COVID-19 radically shifted our work and challenged us on multiple levels. Since the beginning of the pandemic, our priority has been to continue providing essential and life-saving services to young people while mitigating the risk of exposure for young people, staff, and our community.
With respect to essential infrastructure, we have made changes to our operations and the ways we can receive support, including closing our main office to the public and temporarily suspending volunteer support. We opened up an urgent pantry in our administrative office’s basement so that our programs have daily access to food. And we’ve moved all fundraising—including our annual luncheon—to online platforms.
With respect to our youth programs, in April 2020 we temporarily suspended education, employment, and prevention programs to focus exclusively on the core services of food, shelter, and housing. We redeployed staff from those suspended programs to help run core programs and keep young people safe. Our housing and shelter programs are now serving a fixed group of young people with 24/7 staffing, meals, and supports.
We’ve asked young people to stay inside except for breaks during the day or for preapproved activities. Navigating the tension between personal freedom of movement and collective safety has taken a toll on everyone, staff and youth included. To mitigate transitions in programs and give staff time to rest, recharge, and see family, we moved to a 12-hour shift model with two to three shifts per week. Additionally, all staff working directly with young people are making time-and-a-half compensation.
It has definitely been a stressful time. But we are also seeing the incredible resilience of our staff and young people, and that continues to humble and inspire us each day.
Nearly a year later, we spoke with Suzanne Sullivan, YouthCare's Chief Advancement Officer, to get an update on YouthCare—and learn about its early steps toward offering vaccinations and in-person education and employment programs.
We last spoke with YouthCare in June 2020, during the early months of the pandemic—now I'm speaking to you in May 2021. How has the pandemic continued to affect your work?
COVID-19 brought the world to a bit of a halt, but we couldn't bring our programming to a halt. And we also had the added tension of: When your primary point of protection is washing your hands, and you don't have a home, what do you do? So that's why keeping that connection, and making sure that we could keep as many young people safe in our care as we possibly could, was so critically important.
Fortunately, there were very few COVID cases in any of our programming, so our efforts to keep youth healthy have been working. And that has enabled us to keep young people connected to the programs that are helping to sustain them, while strengthening the relationships that are so critical to their progress. As our world opens up, we are looking to provide the support young people need, when they're looking for that first job or second job, or they're looking to reenter the workforce, and they're looking to re-engage in school. What materials do they need to be successful? Can we provide them with a tablet or a computer that they need to do online distance learning?
Your website notes that in 1998, YouthCare opened the first transitional housing program in Washington State for homeless LGBTQ youth, which is Isis House. How was your outreach to LGBTQ youth affected by your response to COVID? Is there a significant amount of intersectionality in the youth you serve?
The needs of Black, Indigenous, People of Color(BICOP) youth, and the needs of LGBTQ youth, are at the forefront of our program delivery. Almost 30 percent of the young people we serve identify as LGBTQIA. Isis House provides an important safe space for some of those youth specifically, but we are affirming at all of our locations—that is, we are supportive of all sexual and gender identities.
Intersectionality can mean different things for different young people. Intersectionality for someone who is a gay Black cisgender man [a cisgender man is a man who was identified as male at birth] is different from the intersectionality of a transgender Latinx female-identifying person. The identities of our young people are nuanced and unique, so we employ an individual approach in meeting the needs of each young person. This approach has helped us to meet the varied and unique needs of our young people through the pandemic. During COVID, we safely connected with young people over the phone and met on-site at our shelter and housing programs with masks.
You mentioned earlier that things may be opening up. How are things going right now?
As our staff and young people become vaccinated, we are beginning to reopen our education, employment, and prevention programs to complement our core services of food, shelter, and housing. We are partnering with local health providers to offer vaccines for our young people, and as they're becoming vaccinated, they're engaging or re-engaging in education and employment programming.
We're holding a hiring event this summer with one of our community partners, our local NHL team, the Seattle Kraken. We're connecting young people with a series of employment opportunities that the team has afforded us, everything from concessions for when the arena opens and hockey games begin to internal positions in their training center and with their production team. There was a recent article in the Seattle Times highlighting our partnership. We are excited about the new beginnings this will afford our youth and our community at large.
About the Get to Know a Grantee series
NCHYF developed the Get to Know a Grantee questionnaire to illustrate the great variety of youth-serving FYSB grantees, to share their insights, experiences, and ideas, and to inspire collaboration.
We regularly share responses from RHY grantees to build understanding about the needs of youth and young adults experiencing homelessness. We also highlight new approaches or strategies to inspire our grantees’ work to support vulnerable youth. Please visit the RHY Clearinghouse with your recommendations for this series.