Each January, the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness conducts The One Night Count, a community-organized census of King County’s homeless population. This year, the count came to 10,047. Of that total, 824 were homeless or unstably housed youth, ages 12 to 25.
Resources, housing and support are outnumbered by the homeless or unstably housed and can be especially difficult to access. In 1995, the Becca Bill, a Washington truancy law the essentially criminalized youth homelessness and pipelined kids into the criminal justice and prison system, exacerbated the problem of youth access. 20 years ago, Elaine Simons responded to the Becca Bill and other injustices she saw against homeless by founding Peace on the Streets by Kids from the Streets (PSKS).
“It started literally in a little room,” says current PSKS executive director Susan Fox. “We were founded by youth who were advocating against policies that were detrimental to youth who might be homeless.”
Now, PSKS finds itself on the forefront of Seattle’s efforts to address homelessness and inequity as the topic becomes a political cause, new shelters are proposed, and money is finally being put forward to help create real solutions.
Fox, a “social worker by trade” with 35 years of experience in everything from direct service and management to policy work and fundraising, joined PSKS as executive director in December 2012. Prior to her current position, Fox was most recently executive director of Jubilee Women’s Center (several blocks northwest of PSKS) and doing fundraising for Navos, the West Seattle and Burien area mental health and wellness center.
Under Fox’s direction, PSKS has moved to its current home in the former Speech Hearing and Deafness Center building near 19th and Madison, a facility 50% larger than the previous. PSKS’s staffing, offered services, and budget have increased dramatically as well. Last winter the city offered to fund a four-month, emergency winter shelter, which has since become a year-round service.
PSKS’s success and longevity, however, must be significantly attributed to the same youth and young adults it serves. Simons founded PSKS in direct cooperation with its clientele.
PSKS Emerald Jubilee Gala & Auction
Saturday October 10th at 6:00pm
Seattle Design Center
5701 Sixth Ave South, Seattle, Washington 98108
Youth involvement runs all the way up to the board of directors. In a bottom-up system of governance, members of the PSKS Core Membership — an elected body that votes on organizational activities — sit as advisors to the board. Beyond improving service, Fox says that PSKS’s structure gives it a less institutional feel.
As an example, Fox cites the facility’s new showers: “They know better than I do how to run a homeless shelter shower, so we ask them for their best ideas on what works and what doesn’t and we’ll tweak it for our facility. The board of directors look to the youth to define what the programs and needs internally and externally should be.”
“A lot of these kids are system-resistant; they have been through lots of different systems that have treated them horribly,” adds Fox.
PSKS also offers a non-traditional GED pathway, a peer support program for the newly sheltered, an activities-based women’s group, case management, substance abuse counseling, and LEAP (Lasting Employment Advancement Program), a three-month paid internship cohort designed to give interns job skills and experience.
In the near future, Fox hopes to renovate the PSKS’s upper floor into functional youth housing. She also hopes to resume the Donut Dialogues, an early PSKS program in which police officers, local business owners, and homeless youth are given the opportunity in a peaceful environment. And, pending Fox’s budget request to the city, her staff will soon add a full-time mental health counselor; a resource that would prevent PSKS from referring youth out to other services and facilities.
As Seattle City Hall finally appears serious about doing more to help homeless youth, expect the solutions from PSKS to be part of the plans.
You can celebrate PSKS’s 20th anniversary this Saturday, October 9 at Seattle Design Center. RSVP here. Tickets are $95. You can also make a tax deductible donation.