Over 1,000 miles stretch between Washington and Arizona. Aija packed her things at milepost one without any laid plans—best or otherwise—for what she would do after mile 999. She was just 19. She might have been running from something, or she might have wanted an adventure; she doesn’t tell me. She only describes that after arriving in Washington and finding a temporary place to stay with family, what few plans she had unraveled. “I was in an unstable environment,” she casually mentions.
Aija is guarded about the details of her brush with homelessness. It’s a common response among youth ages 13 to 24. Many don’t even recognize that they’re homeless: they’re just crashing on a friend’s couch or staying with a family member. It’s all very temporary. They aren’t without shelter, so how could they be homeless?
The federal definition of homelessness is inclusive, meaning it includes situations where housing is insecure; such as doubling up with family members or couch surfing.
This definition recognizes the importance of permanence. If a person is too busy sorting out basic necessities like food and shelter, there’s no room left for education or exploring job prospects. Contributing to one’s community and civic engagement is off the table. So it stands to reason that we all benefit when people are stably housed.
A “one-stop youth service center,” REACH was formed in 2004 when community colleges and youth service providers joined forces to bring together as many of the disparate youth programs in Pierce County under one roof as possible. Nick Bayard, Director of the REACH Center, explains the difficulty people were having in finding services they needed. “A lot of people we serve have a hard time getting around. They don’t know how to navigate these different systems. So they looked at how to make that easy.”
After five years of planning and collaboration, the REACH Center was born.
Walking into the REACH Center at the Goodwill Milgard Work Opportunity Center building feels a bit like walking into the lobby of a start-up company. The outside of the building pops with contrasting shades of green and red, and the open concept design inside houses a coffee bar (where baristas to-be receive hands-on training). The bottom floor is punctuated by randomly placed desks occupied by workers of partnered services, like Vadis, and offices upstairs are in plain sight. This design is important: it feels airy and welcoming, like it’s okay to stay for a while and get comfortable.
Anyone aged 13 to 24 can walk into the REACH Center and find out about their offered programs—from education to employment to housing through Housing 4 Success—but if a client is experiencing a housing crisis, like Aija was, the first place to start is Access Point 4 Housing, where they can help determine whether shared housing or Rapid Rehousing will be the best route. Once referred to the REACH Center’s “independent living track,” a Housing Navigator helps them search for apartments, teaches them how to talk to landlords, and helps with lease signing and furnishing the apartment through the NW Furniture Bank. “The beauty of the REACH Center is that it’s so many great organizations coming together to provide an easy pathway for youth that are dealing with some really hard things,” says Bayard. “The easier we can make it on them, the better we are at doing our job.”
Once referred to Access Point, Aija was told to expect a follow-up call from AP4H anywhere between two weeks and 90 days. “I didn’t think they were going to call me back. It literally took 90 days. But they called at exactly the right time, because my situation was extremely rocky.”
Once in the care of a REACH Housing Navigator, things progressed quickly: “They promised me they’d get me housed before Thanksgiving, and they got me housed on November 17th.” Along with NW Furniture bank, Aija was also connected with food and utility assistance programs. Life skills courses at REACH taught her about home ownership, financial stability, and how to balance a checkbook and pay bills. Having her own apartment has given her a stable environment to study for her classes, and she now has the skills to put plans for her future into action.
Back at Pierce College, Aija tells me that her case manager has been motivating her to stay in school. She made the Dean’s list last quarter, and will travel to Barcelona this summer on a full-ride scholarship to study abroad for three months. “I’m not sure if I’ll want to come back,” she jokes. It’s her first time out of the U.S.
Accomplishing her goals has inspired Aija to keep going. She now has her future planned for the next several years. “I’ll be done with my Master’s degree by the time I’m 28. I have it all mapped out. If you would have met me two years ago, you would have never known where I’d be now.”
If you looked around Tacoma, you would have no idea that it is filled with homeless youth. Most, like Aija, are in “couch-surfing” situations, so they aren’t as visible as kids on the street are in, say, Olympia or Seattle. Perhaps it’s because they’re floating from house to house, invisible to everyone but those aware of their situation, but perhaps it’s because Pierce County doesn’t have a single shelter for homeless youth. Not one. They aren’t allowed in adult shelters, and many are unaccompanied youth, so they don’t have a guardian to accompany them at family shelters. So when a youth is in immediate crisis with no place to go, the nearest shelters are in Auburn, Olympia, Seattle, or worse—Remann Hall.
Kurt Miller, Executive Director of Community Youth Services and former Director of the REACH Center, is trying to change that. Under the working name New Directions Center, CYS has partnered with the City of Tacoma, Pierce County, and several partner organizations to create a crisis center and youth shelter. The project will take place over several years and in phases, and will include crisis centers for youth and victims of sexual exploitation and sex trafficking (with services and beds), a shelter for 13 to 17 year olds and a shelter for 18 to 24 year olds, a “fully operational youth café,” and satellite centers beyond Tacoma in Pierce County.
The idea is to create a continuum of care for 13 to 24 year olds, a service desperately needed in Pierce County, which experiences around 3,000 young people in a year’s time experiencing homelessness or at-risk of homelessness. According to OSPI, there were 3,011 homeless students in the Pierce County School District. “We also know that 6% of Tacoma Public Schools students are experiencing homelessness and those are just the ones that are identified. So the problem is huge,” Kurt tells me.
The shelter will be furnished with 20 beds, but have space for 30. It’s important that they find the right fit for the building; it needs to be just as open and welcoming as the REACH Center. Kurt wants people to know that they are valued when they walk through its doors. “It has to be a place that a young person wants to come to. If they don’t, forget it. No matter what you do, they’re not coming in. The staff has to be welcoming, and it has to be in the right neighborhood.”
Miller and CYS are in the process of securing a building for the crisis center and shelter, the first phase of the project. They hope to finish plans by the end of this year.
For more information and volunteer opportunities, visit http://www.communityyouthservices.org/volunteer.shtml
Feature photo by Ryan Lowry; photos of REACH Center by Rachel Moreshead