Shelters for young adults in King County are turning people away in record numbers as unemployment escalates and housing costs continue to be out of reach.
This surge in demand for shelter reveals a new face of homelessness, one fueled by the legacy of a failing foster care system and young people stranded by the crack epidemic of the late 1980s.
Some of those young people are now having families of their own, and without resources, are winding up homeless. Families are the fastest-growing segment of the homeless population. Yet the group driving this trend – young adults ages 18-24 – is generally under-counted and under-represented when solutions are envisioned. Relatively few resources are being directed to prevent them from producing new generations of homeless families.
One of the most disturbing legacies of homelessness is that it can be handed down from parent to child. Children who experience homelessness growing up are more likely to experience it as adults.
Casi Jackson is part of the problem, and part of the solution. At work at a homeless outreach center on Seattle’s Eastside, she shifts her daughter, Tiana, 7 months, on her hip and juggles a cell phone in her other hand while she fields a call from a scared-sounding mom with no place to sleep tonight. Slender, with long curly hair, and an unflinching manner, Jackson is matter-of-fact on the phone, and sounds older than her 22 years. She knows what it’s like to be staring down a night without shelter.
Homeless families are typically headed by young women with young children.
Jackson was homeless at 20. She had borne three children by 21. One died. One is now living with a grandparent. One lives with her. She has another on the way as she struggles to make for them what she never had — a stable home with a family under one roof.
Jackson clicks off the call in the bare cubicle that serves as a makeshift office for Vets Edge, the grass-roots homeless outreach service run by her friend and mentor Joe Ingram out of the front lobby of the Together Center, a campus of 16 nonprofits in downtown Redmond. Tiana clambers to get down, and Jackson holds her daughter’s hands while the baby wobbles to her feet.
It’s a group driven by two large converging forces – an economy that has been especially brutal on young people, and the large numbers currently “aging out” or growing to adulthood in foster care.
While King County’s one-night count showed an overall decrease of 5 percent in the total numbers of homeless, shelters for young adults are turning people away in record numbers, said Kristine Cunningham, executive director of ROOTS in Seattle, one of the pioneering young adult shelters in the country.
ROOTS expects to have to turn away young people 2,000 times this year, compared with 200 times five years ago, said Cunningham, and that’s even as the number of shelter beds for young adults in Seattle has increased. “The odds of getting a bed are about one in seven.”
For some of those young people, getting pregnant is perceived as a way out of homelessness. There’s a perception on the street that if you’re about to give birth, you can get housing, said Cunningham. “We’ve incentivized becoming pregnant.” Wait lists are just as burdened for housing for young families, but having a child does make a young person eligible for services not available to childless young adults.
So homelessness becomes a self-perpetuating problem.
Children born to homeless mothers, or who experience multiple episodes of housing instability – couch surfing, staying in motels, or shuttling between households when they are young – often mirror that in their own adulthoods.
Jackson’s own trajectory shows how homelessness can pass from generation to generation. She was born in a California jail. Her military father was deployed when his baby daughter was discharged from the jail medical ward.
She spent her childhood knocking between relatives, most often with a grandmother, a foster parent who was also raising many of Jackson’s cousins.
“If I had to characterize my childhood in one word,” she said, “it would be chaos.”
Young people age 18 to 24 make up 26 percent of homeless families.
Yet, of all segments of the homeless population, young adults probably receive the least attention, have the fewest resources applied to help them, and have the least amount of policy advocacy on their behalf, said Mark Putnam, a lead consultant for Building Changes, a nonprofit focused on ending homelessness. “There’s not a coalition for them in Washington state,” he said. At the national level, it’s barely on the radar of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, a powerful advocacy group that provides information the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“Being homeless is like a picture of someone screaming, and no one coming to help,” said Tony Torres, 22, a former foster kid who spent the last four years on the street, in and out of shelters and has just now gotten a temporary bed in a transitional home.
Shane Thomas, 23, is one of an estimated 1,000 young adults believed homeless nightly in Seattle. He picks up jobs on fishing boats when he can, but despite the seasonal, temporary gigs, he still winds up staying on the street and in shelters.
“The thing about being homeless – you get stuck in one spot,” he said. “Might get a little more money in your pocket the next day, but you’re still going to be broke.”
There’s a cultural bias that these young people are able-bodied, and should be working, Putnam said. “People prejudge they made a choice to be on the street.”
For most, it’s not a choice.
Making it on your own at age 18 may have been possible for their parents’ generation, said Rachel Antrobus, director of San-Francisco based Transitional Age Youth Initiative, an agency that works to coordinate services for 18 to 24-year-olds. “But that’s not actually a reality anymore.”
Unemployment rates are higher among young adults than other age groups. In July, the youth unemployment rate edged over 19 percent, the highest July rate on record since 1948.
“The 30-year-olds are taking jobs from 20-year-olds, because the 40-year-olds are taking the 30-year-old’s jobs, said Putnam. “These guys are truly employment victims of the recession.
Those that used to get by sharing a studio with someone else, or moving back in with their folks, can’t even make that happen anymore.
Nationally, a wage-earner in a family with children has to make almost $18 an hour to afford the average two-bedroom apartment. In King County, families must earn 2-1/2 times the minimum wage of $8.55 an hour, or $21.40, to afford even a modest two-bedroom apartment.
That’s out of reach for many young adults, especially those with limited education and training.
Curtis, 24, who didn’t want his last name used, wound up staying at The Landing, a young adult shelter in Bellevue, after the place he was renting went into foreclosure. He hasn’t been able to scrape together enough money to find a new place on his wages parking cars for a luxury hotel. “Some places are asking like $1500 to 2 grand for deposit,” he said. “The whole situation just really sucks.”
From foster care to the streets
The economy, however, only compounds an even larger underlying problem: The largest driver of the young adult homeless population is the foster care system.
“Once you hit 18, you get dumped from the system and forgotten about,” said Torres, who lived in multiple foster homes from the age of 12 until he was 18. He suffers from kidney failure, and has had to juggle difficult medical treatments with life on the streets.
At age 18, states stop providing money for support of foster children.
The Mockingbird Society, a foster youth advocacy group based in Seattle, lobbied successfully to get federal legislation passed to extend support until age 21. The Fostering Connections to Success Act passed in 2008 provides federal matching funds for extending foster support. But the fight now is to get states to put up their part of the money, said spokeswoman Rose Berg. There’s a law, but so far, few states have financed programs that would qualify to get the match.
Shut out of jobs for lack of training, priced out of housing for lack of jobs, they also lack family support that can bridge the tough times.
In 2009, 80 percent of college graduates moved home after finishing school, according to job listing web site Collegegrad.com, up from 77 percent in 2008 and 67 percent in 2006. Those without the training and family support of college graduates are hurting even more.
About 80 percent of those staying at The Landing, a Bellevue shelter for young adults, have been in foster care, said Denise Wallace, mental health counselor at shelter.
Nationally, a report by Pew Charitable Trusts showed while the number of kids in foster care has been declining, the number of those aging out is on the rise, increasing by 41 percent between 1998 and 2005. About 20,000 young people a year age out of foster care.
This is the legacy of the crack epidemic of the 1980s, said Antrobus. Many of the kids who have been aging out went into the system as a byproduct of that era of rampant drug use by their parents. “We’ve been in a peak for a few years, and we will be for a few more.”
Studies, including those done by Pew, also show that one in five of those who age out will be homeless within two years of leaving foster care. Half won’t have a high school degree. Less than 3 percent graduate college. A 2004 study by Casey Family Programs in conjunction with Washington’s Department Social and Health Services showed 13 percent of those leaving foster care in this state became homeless within a year and more than half were unemployed.
By the time they age out of foster care at age 18, 20 percent of young women are already parents themselves. Another 40 percent are pregnant.
“We’re seeing a lot of kids who have been in foster care, their kids are now in foster care,” said Julie Jacobson, director of the Center for Young Adults at the Seattle YMCA.
Jackson first got pregnant when she was 18. She moved to Seattle, and was living with her boyfriend and his mother when, she says, the relationship turned violent.
Her boyfriend hit her when she was pregnant with their second, she said. That baby was born prematurely at 25 weeks, not quite 2 pounds. He died of pneumonia just a few weeks after coming home. Scared and deeply depressed, she fled through a bedroom window in the middle of the night.
Homeless with her 18-month-old daughter in tow, she couldn’t immediately find a shelter that would take her with a baby. Friends helped, but she eventually wound up at Harborview Medical Center in desperation. Harborview called Child Protective Services, and Jackson agreed to give temporary custody of her daughter to the child’s paternal grandmother, a crisis decision she says she now regrets.
That episode of homelessness broke apart her family. A pro-bono lawyer who specializes in helping former foster children is helping her try to reunify. But it’s moving slowly. And she’s acutely aware of the potential effects on her daughter.
“I moved around as a kid from home to home. I know it’s hard to do,” she said. “I don’t want to do that to her.”
Garbage bag kids
Homelessness begets homelessness.
People who don’t grow up with stable homes don’t develop many of the coping strategies that let them transition into stable home lives as adults, said Cunningham of ROOTS.
Some lack practical life skills as well. Many don’t drive because the state restricts foster parents from teaching them. Many don’t have conflict-resolution skills that it takes to survive in a workplace.
Their coping strategies are for surviving the street. People on the street use drugs the same way people with houses use TV, said Torres, the former foster child who became homeless. “To escape.” They fight and steal when they have to. They do what they need to do to stay alive.
“And when something happens,” Cunningham said, “it’s easier to just run.”
Cunningham, who formerly worked for DSHS, used to drive the “garbage bag” car on the day multiple foster children played musical houses. “All their possessions would be in that garbage bag,” she said.
But those kids carry other baggage as well. Educational delays, shame, and a pervasive sense of being unwanted. Many have been abused.
“There’s a lot of trauma, said Wallace, the counselor who works at The Landing. A University of Washington study found that foster youth have nearly twice the rate of PTSD as war veterans.
Many have also absorbed negative impressions about their own potential and capabilities.
“There’s a stigma attached to being 17 and in the 10th grade, said Jacobson. “No one sits with them and says, ‘What are your hopes and dreams?’ ”
Jackson does have hopes and dreams. And they came with getting a roof over her head.
She wants, first, to get her daughter back. She wants to get her degree in social work from the University of Washington. She wants to work as a peer counselor for other women who have lost children as a result of domestic violence.
For Jackson, and others like her, getting housing is like winning a lottery.
It is, in fact, a lottery. Jackson was on three wait lists for subsidized transitional housing when she lucked out and got a Section 8 voucher.
That voucher enabled her to move to her apartment and start to straighten out her life without the typical two-year wait. Maintaining housing, however, is also something of a lottery.
“Honestly, it’s something I think about all the time – when am I going to be homeless again? I’m scared of losing it all. I always wonder —what if Section 8 runs out of money. What if my program goes under? I know that when I was homeless last time, I lost everything.” Jackson is standing in the middle of her living room, apologizing for the mess. It’s June, and her pregnancy has started to show.
“I don’t have nice things because I would just lose them all again,” she said.
But she does have the things that are most important to her. She has two harmless corn snakes in an aquarium – pets she’s had since she was a young teen. She has an antique sewing machine given to her by another person about to become homeless.
“She wanted it to go to someone who wouldn’t throw it away,” she said. She has her deceased son’s footprints in clay.
The last time she saw her older daughter was two months ago. Regular visits are difficult to arrange. It takes three buses and three hours to reach the city where she lives. And she’s not able to see her at the grandparent’s home because she has a no contact order against the child’s father, and there’s always a possibility he will be there.
“I’m sick of not seeing my daughter,” she said. “I’m just trying to do this the right way.”
The young adult segment of the homeless population has unique needs and challenges that so far have not been well addressed, say those who work with this population.
Seattle and San Francisco are ahead of the curve in providing specialized emergency shelter for this demographic. In many other cities, young people have to go to general adult shelters, or sleep outside.
“Even though it’s not age appropriate to be with older shelter population, at this time, we don’t have a separate option,” said Josephine Pufpaff, director of Youth Link in Minneapolis, which tries to help young people transitioning to adulthood.
While other programs that aid homeless families focus on preventing evictions or foreclosures, for example, the issue facing many young homeless adults is getting into housing in the first place.
Ruth Blaw, director of the Orion Center, a drop-in center for young adults, said there are long wait lists for housing. “It could be six months,” she said. “Or it could be forever.”
And when the lucky few do get housing, they sometimes lose it because they aren’t prepared to fit into it.
“The approaches we’ve tried are not working,” said Cunningham. Young people who have been on the street often don’t fit well into existing models of group housing where many young people share small common areas and are required to live under strict rules. She suggests a model that allows them more independence, while still providing support service, such as job training and counseling, would be more successful.
There’s also a need for more job training geared at getting real, living wage jobs, said Putnam.
More than half of foster youth remain unemployed within a year of turning 19, more than double their rate of their peers overall. And of the remaining foster youth who do-work, half were working at sub-poverty or minimum-wage jobs.
In fact, many of the young people using both The Landing and ROOTS have minimum wage jobs working at fast-food restaurants and other places, but still can’t make enough to get into places of their own.
A house with two doors
Jackson’s baby is due any day now, and she’s excited. She’s been paring down the clutter in her apartment, clearing the living room so her baby and friends’ children can play.
This new baby will be a boy. A social worker from Healthy Start, who has been working with her since Tiana was born, has been helping her prepare.
She’s seeking financial aid to complete her Associate’s degree at Bellevue College. She’s making new friends — friends who aren’t homeless. She and the baby’s father, who is in her life, are trying to make plans for the future.
Jackson perches Tiana on the shelf of her belly while she tends to her friend’s crying two-year-old.
“You want to play with this?” she asks them. She zips open a pop-up house, a nylon, tent-like contraption that springs into shape taking up most of the small living room.
Both children crow with glee and tumble in.
The phone rings. It’s Ingram, her outreach director. Another new family is asking for help. The two of them have handled twice as many calls this year as last. In this economy, young families who are housed one moment, can be homeless the next. It never gets easier to find them help.
Jackson puts the phone down and watches the children. They giggle and roll on the floor of the toy house. They stretch to try to touch the ceiling.
“They love this thing,” she says. “It has two doors.
“They can go in and out. Either side.”
InvestigateWest reporters Cassandra Little and Emily Holt contributed to this report.
This story was edited by Rita Hibbard.