by Lisa Jones
There are over 100 organizations in Whatcom County working to provide supportive services to those experiencing chronic poverty and its associated effects: addiction, homelessness, incarceration, mental illness, and unemployment. Whatcom Watch believes these organizations often labor unnoticed by citizens — this column is designed to add daylight to their endeavors. We have contacted the organization appearing in this column and asked them to explain their mission. Because, in challenging times, being inspired and perhaps empowered by the acts of others is more important than ever.
For over 40 years, Northwest Youth Services has been the only local organization dedicated to serving young people, ages 13-24, who are experiencing homelessness in Whatcom County. A young person may not ‘fit’ the mental picture that pops into mind when considering the ongoing struggle of housing and chronic poverty in Whatcom County, but it is a critical need in our service areas of Whatcom and Skagit counties.
Youth experiencing homelessness are often without a place to live because his/her “home” is not a safe or welcoming place. In a 2015 study from the National Runaway Switchboard, more than 70 percent of interviewed youth described leaving home as occurring on the spur of the moment. Of youth who left their “home” without a plan in place, sometimes without even a bag packed, 78 percent had $10 or less upon leaving. Young people, particularly unaccompanied minors, are subject to complex systems and legal restrictions that are hard to picture from a housed, adult standpoint. Northwest Youth Services’ staff maintains the knowledge and capacity to work with youth to navigate these systems and their unique situations.
We provide outreach, an array of housing programs, help finding a job or enrolling in school, wrap-around mental health services (including chemical dependency support), support and resources for LGBTQ-plus identifying youth, restorative justice for juvenile offenders, and referrals to other necessary services and organizations throughout our community.
Throughout these efforts, we strive to help youth feel “safe, heard, and valued.” Program staff work with youth to identify their personal goals for the future and build the skills necessary to reach their own sense of stability and wellness. The holistic well-being of young people is a core principle in our programming and determines how staff approach their work with young people. Too often, young people experiencing a housing crisis can think of themselves as liabilities, rather than assets to the community. We seek to engage youth using thoughtful and creative approaches that inspire them to discover their strengths and lean into them.
Another of our priorities is to keep youth healthy and informed about subjects that impact them, while ensuring our staff have the tools and resources to safely meet young people’s needs. This isn’t an easy balance, especially in a pandemic. We were quick to adapt our services and programs to respond to Covid-19, recognizing that we serve a population that often cannot self-isolate, stock up on groceries, or pull out a phone to Google the latest guidelines for safety. We continue learning day-by-day and changing course as needed, remaining a reassuring, rational, and calm provider of essential services to youth.
What We Know Today
Like any of us, the young people we serve are experiencing a wide range of feelings right now. Anxieties are high. Youth with limited support systems may feel more alone than before. For youth who were still in school, the question of “where do I go now” may be at the forefront of their minds. Some young people struggle to fully grasp their risk or role in addressing the pandemic, especially since the response has disrupted their progress on their vocational, educational, or personal goals.
The pandemic response throws into perspective how lack of housing always impacts the safety of unhoused youth. Many don’t have a safe place to isolate or quarantine, open access to a sink to wash their hands, or a phone to keep in touch with their support network. Housed, formerly homeless youth who had “stabilized” may feel trapped in their homes, often without internet access, a phone, or companionship. They may have lost jobs or been furloughed, and worry about their housing, health, and income. Vulnerable populations, such as the unhoused or young adults with limited incomes, have been, and will be, the hardest hit financially by this health crisis.
To protect the mental and physical health of the young people we serve, Northwest Youth Services must help unhoused youth access housing and housed youth safely practice isolation. We believe in the resiliency of our youth to weather this crisis, as they have weathered many others. Here is what we are doing today to address the challenges ahead:
• Our outreach services have transitioned to “safe mode.” In Whatcom County, this means that The Ground Floor (a day-use center for at-risk, runaway and homeless youth ages 24 and under) is limited to unhoused youth only, has a cap on the number in the space at one time, and is intentionally focused on low-interaction services. In Skagit County, essential items are available, but our location-based walk-in services are on pause. n Our emergency housing programs are educating youth on social distancing and staying healthy. The PAD Program (Positive Adolescent Development) is an emergency housing program in Bellingham that offers housing for youth between 13 – 17 years old — PAD has completed a deep clean, staff training, and is operating with four beds for unaccompanied minors, rather than the 16 beds it typically provides. The cap is to minimize Covid-19 exposure for youth and staff and includes two isolated beds for youth feeling unwell. Our emergency housing programs for young adults are encouraging social distancing and providing sanitizing products.
• Housing teams have been performing routine check-ins in touch with all young people in our longer-term housing efforts. Right now, housing programs serve over 100 housed youth and their dependents. Staff are working to ensure they have the provisions and supplies needed to safely isolate or quarantine themselves as needed. In some cases, this looks like delivering food, purchasing phones to ensure youth stay connected to support systems, and developing emergency plans in case a youth develops symptoms, including what youth can do to keep themselves safe and whom to call in an emergency.
• Prevention efforts, such as vocational and behavioral health programs, have stopped meeting in-person and staff connect with youth by phone and email. Primary efforts are to support youth who have lost income in applying for new positions and/or navigating benefits.
• Our school-based programs respect the closures and policies of the districts we serve. Staff remain in contact with youth in ways that respect social distancing guidelines. We want to be there for out of school youth, recognizing that many have nowhere to justifiably “be” outside of the school setting. Likewise, youth who identify as LGBTQ-plus are in some ways more vulnerable outside of the school setting.
Our administrative offices in Whatcom and Skagit are closed. Staff are working from home and finding creative ways to connect with young people.
Northwest Youth Services remains in contact with county health officials and program partners about how to best support the young people who depend on us, and who to turn to when we have exhausted our abilities.
How You Can Help
Learn More: We strive to stay connected with the community and with youth during this time of physical separation. More information is available on our Facebook page (@NWYouthServices) and website (www.nwys.org).
Donate: Encouraging all our youth (and staff) to stay home has meant changes in how we work, what we need, and how you can help. Operating funds help us “keep the lights on” in all of our program spaces and our Amazon Wishlist is updated routinely. If you don’t know what we need most, an Amazon gift card is a fantastic way to help us meet urgent needs. Visit www.nwys.org.
Lisa Jones is the grant coordinator for Northwest Youth Services, www.nwys.org, and has worked with social service nonprofits for the past eight years.