Jim Theofelis, executive director of a Way Home Washington, has worked with homeless youth and young adults for the past 40 years.
“For me there’s a real deep connection to young people who are vulnerable, who the system has not served well, and have been failed too many times by the adults who are supposed to take care of them,” he said.
A Way Home Washington is a public-private partnership in Seattle that’s building a movement to prevent and end homelessness in the state.
On April 18-19, the organization gathered teams from Pierce, King and Spokane counties in Seattle for its 100-Day Challenge to create means for collectively housing more than 700 homeless youth.
Here are conferees’ commitments for the next 100 days:
• King County intends to find safe and stable housing for 450 young adults ages 18-24; 60 percent of these young adults would be people of color or identify as Lesbian, Gay, Transgender, Bisexual and Queer (LGTBQ).
• Pierce County expects to house 168 youth and young adults. Up to 30 percent of these are 16 to 17 years old; 40 percent of housed youth and young adults identify as LGTBQ and 40 percent are people of color. The county also targets developing 100 new housing options, which include landlords, home opportunities and host homes.
• Spokane County plans to place 100 youth and young adults in housing, including 10 minors. There would be a focus on youth and young adults who encounter barriers to housing.
According to the Washington Department of Commerce, nearly 13,000 homeless youth are unaccompanied in the state, meaning a parent or legal guardian isn’t present.
In the late 1970s, Theofelis worked in homeless shelters and as an outreach worker on the streets in Seattle. The Donut House, near Pike Place Market, was infamous for drugs, prostitution and other criminal activities. Hundreds of youth gathered there each night. Theofelis would intervene, steer the youth away from dangerous situations and try to help get them off the streets.
As the director of mental health clinics at King County Juvenile Detention, he was instrumental in advocating passage of the state’s HOPE Act in 1999. He helped draft the legislation and presented it to former Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, and Rep. Ruth Kagi, D-Seattle, and recruited homeless youth to speak at legislative hearings on the proposal. The HOPE Act funded 75 emergency-shelter beds across the state. Youths can self-refer to these beds meaning they can enter centers without the intervention of a social worker.
In 2001 Theofelis founded the Mockingbird Society, a Seattle-based organization geared to improving foster care and ending youth homelessness. Subsequently, he helped draft and advocated for passage of more than 25 pieces of legislation affecting youth homelessness and foster care, including a measure that extended the time a foster youth can stay in foster care – from 18 to 21 years of age. He met with lawmakers and testified during public hearings to support these acts.
After leaving the Mockingbird Society in 2015, Theofelis became Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s special advisor on homelessness and a senior advisor on youth homelessness to Partners of Our Children, a collaboration of the University of Washington School of Social Work, Washington State Department of Social and Health Services, and private sector funding.
Now, as the executive director of a Way Home Washington, he continues to search for solutions and puts forward plans and policies to prevent and end youth homelessness. Over the years he’s seen a change in perception in how people view homeless youth and young adults.
“We have changed the narrative, moving away from those bad kids to our kids who need support,” he said. “That’s been huge.”
Having the necessary means
To Theofelis, ending youth homelessness means communities across the state have enough resources to meet the needs of homeless youths in their community.
“Basically kids should not have to run away from their communities and come to Seattle to get a safe bed.”
During the Seattle conference, the teams from Spokane, Pierce, and King Counties worked to break down barriers that prevent youth from being housed in their communities.
“Over the next two days you will identify goals to accelerate progress and move toward our ultimate and collective goal, which is making sure every young person has the resources and support they need to exit homelessness and have a path forward,” Theofelis said as he addressed the crowd during his welcome speech on April 18.
At the conference each community was coached by Rapid Results Institute, a nonprofit that works to create change in social impact programs. The institute has been involved in other 100-day challenges around homelessness.
At conference end, each community delivered its plan. Theofelis said that the communities focused on equity, specifically the disproportionate number of LGBTQ youth and youth of color who are experiencing homelessness.
Youth experiencing homelessness and people who work with homeless youth were at the forefront of each team’s conversations.
Terry Jackson, who experienced homelessness as a youth, was a part of the conversations and spoke during the conference’s closing ceremony. He is co-chair of A Way Home Washington and is a chapter leader with Mockingbird’s Youth Advocates Ending Homelessness program. His struggles as a youth experiencing homelessness lead him to the Mockingbird Society.
“My experience gives me insight to some of the barriers youth experiencing homelessness face on their journey,” he said. “I’ve shared this to encourage you to listen to the youth experts on your team. Each one of them has a personal story that contains key pieces of information that will guide your success.”
Karina Woodruff, senior program manager of shelter, outreach and support services at Friends of Youth, said her team included supervisors of programs that deal with shelters, outreach, and crisis management, and young people who experienced homelessness or were formerly in foster care.
Friends of Youth, a nonprofit in Kirkland, provides services to youth and families experiencing homelessness.
“We had a variety of voices at the table who were able to speak from their own perspectives around what they thought would be helpful moving forward,” Woodruff said.
The communities report their progress periodically to A Way Home Washington and Rapid Results Institute, and gather at the end of 100 days to discuss how their challenges went. Day one began April 20.
The event was financially supported by the Raikes Foundation and the Schultz Family Foundation.
Howard and Sheri Schultz started the Schultz Family Foundation in Seattle, which initiates national strategies and initiatives focused on supporting and creating opportunities for veterans and homeless youth. Howard Schultz built Starbucks into the company it is today. He is serving as Starbuck’s executive chairman.
“The 100-Day Challenge is an opportunity for the provider communities to work with the city and the county at the same table to create some urgency around this (youth homelessness) and come up with solutions for the young people who are currently unsheltered,” said Daniel Pitasky, executive director of the Schultz Family Foundation.
Launched by Jeff and Tricia Raikes, the Raikes Foundation, located in Seattle, invests in strategies and programs that support and empower all youth to be successful in adulthood. Jeff Raikes was the president of the Microsoft Business Division and later became the CEO of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He left that post in 2014.
The Raikes Foundation supported another 100-Day Challenge in Austin, Texas last year, which was held by A Way Home America and Rapid Results Institute and included the cities of Austin, Cleveland and Los Angeles.
Katie Hong, director of youth homelessness at the Raikes Foundation, thought the 100-Day Challenge in Seattle went well. She said the goal of the challenge was to find young people in crisis and get them into stable housing as soon as possible. Determining a specific goal of how many youth could be housed helps each community address youth homelessness, she noted.
“I would love if it we hit this out of the ballpark, but even if we don’t meet that numeric goal, we won’t be a failure if we learned something in the process,” she said.
She compares preventing and ending youth homelessness to building a fence around a cliff. The fence may not be able to stop all young people from falling into homelessness, but the community’s response should be similar to a trampoline. The resources available in a community should help a young person bounce back into stability instead of getting entangled in the spider web of homelessness where it’s hard to break free.
Washington’s first lady, Trudi Inslee, is co-chair of A Way Home Washington. During the closing ceremony she spoke about the state government’s commitment to leading the effort to ending youth homelessness. “Government has a very important stake in this, government is all of us,” she said.
Theofelis expects to continue working toward solutions that prevent and end homelessness. He believes the conferee communities can make a difference in the next 100 days.
“I think what we (A Way Home Washington) want is increased awareness, connection and action,” he said. “I think the 100-Day Challenge gives us that opportunity.”
(This story is part of a series of news reports from the Washington State Legislature provided through a reporting internship sponsored by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation. Reach reporter Grace Swanson at email@example.com.)