A ‘refuge of grace’ comes to an end for homeless youths

Linnea Benthien, 21, stands next to a poster given to her by a friend that hangs on the wall of her room in the Youth Advancement and Housing house in Graham. The house is scheduled to close Dec. 1.
Linnea Benthien, 21, stands next to a poster given to her by a friend that hangs on the wall of her room in the Youth Advancement and Housing house in Graham. The house is scheduled to close Dec. 1.

Since 2005, the Bethel School District has joined with community groups to house nearly 100 young adults struggling with homelessness and trying to complete their high school education.

But on Dec. 1, the Youth Advancement and Housing program — which provided free shelter, counseling and more — will come to an end due to a lack of available dollars from Pierce County.

“Pretty early on, I recognized it as a refuge of grace, a place to grow emotionally,” says 23-year-old Samuel Smith, who moved into one of two school district-owned houses in 2014 and was able to finish high school at a technical college. He’ll stay on as a caretaker at one of the houses after the program ends Dec. 1.

But other residents have been asked to move out.

“I think this home needs to stay open, so (others) can have the same kind of success we’ve had,” said 21-year-old Linnea Benthien, who lived with an aunt until the aunt died last year. After bouncing through a few living situations, Benthien landed at YAH. She’s enrolled in an alternative high school completion program through the Bethel School District.

Smith and Benthien are two of the last three youths who remained this week in one of two single-family homes near Graham. Both houses are on property owned by the school district.

Associated Ministries, which has staffed the YAH program since 2013, has been helping residents find new shelter since they first learned of the cuts about a month ago.

Pretty early on, I recognized it as a refuge of grace, a place to grow emotionally

Samuel Smith, resident

“We are deeply saddened that we can’t continue,” said Michael Yoder, executive director at Associated Ministries. But he said notice of the funding reduction from Pierce County came too late in the year to allow his agency to secure new dollars to pay for YAH.

The properties were purchased by the district years ago to accommodate future school district growth.

“They had houses on them and we thought, ‘Why not use them for something good?’ ” said Jay Brower, community connections director for the school district.

The housing program was aimed at youths older than 18 who were still attempting to finish school or job training. Students have until age 21 to earn a high school diploma, and many who are over 18 choose to do so through alternative programs rather than remaining at a traditional high school.

Associated Ministries employed two live-in supervisory staff — one for the women’s house and another for the men’s house — and a part-time caseworker who worked to help residents find jobs, schooling and support. More recently, the program was consolidated as a co-ed program at one house.

Houses for homeless youth to close in Bethel

A drop in available funding means the end of a housing program that has been serving homeless young adults in Graham since 2005. Pierce County officials say they had fewer resources for the program this year due to a drop in grant funding.

  Bethel School District

Closing the doors at YAH was “a difficult decision,” Yoder said. “We believe in the program.” He deemed the closure “an unfortunate outcome from basically a resource strain.”

What happened to the county funding? The answer is complicated.

Previously, Associated Ministries had received county funding of about $100,000 a year. This year, it was asked to submit a funding request for 18 months, and it requested $159,000.

But Pierce County officials say they had to make some tough funding decisions.

The county received nearly $12 million in requests from various programs, but had only $6.3 million to spend. No applicant got 100 percent of what was requested, said Tess Colby, manager for Pierce County’s Community Connections program.

Associated Ministries was offered $64,000 over 18 months.

“When our primary funding is a government contract, we can’t make up the extra from private funding,” Yoder said. “Especially with little notice.”

We are deeply saddened that we can’t continue

Michael Yoder, executive director, Associated Ministries

Colby explained that the county uses a combination of sources to fund social service programs, including federal grants and money earmarked from document recording fees. State law allows the county to use a portion of the money collected from the filing of documents, such as those used in real estate transactions, to pay for programs for the homeless.

While revenue from those fees has remained stable, some private grant funding that also was supporting the programs ended this year, Colby said.

That meant that the county needed to steer a portion of the document fee revenue toward programs that had received grant money in the past.

In a message to school district and county officials, Colby also explained that the county uses a “data-driven and performance-based approach” to funding programs. The county committee that oversees distribution of the money looks at factors such as how many people are served and how successfully the program transitions residents to permanent housing.

YAH offered 10 beds but in the past two years, has operated at just 54 percent occupancy, Colby wrote. It has, on average, assisted 52 percent of its clients to move into permanent housing.

Yoder said programs like YAH, where residents might stay for years, have fallen out of favor nationally. The emphasis now is on helping residents move more quickly to permanent housing.

Officials estimate that about 10 percent of the homeless population in Pierce County are young adults or unaccompanied minors. Colby said the county has a commitment to addressing the problem, and that it funds other programs focused on moving young people into housing of their own.

Yoder is hopeful that YAH could re-open in the future, perhaps with new federal funding. The school district is exploring whether help from other faith-based groups or Americorps volunteers can keep the program going.

“We’re pretty passionate about this,” said Brower. “We want this to work.”

He said schools hear about students living in the woods, in their cars, or “couch surfing” between friends and family members. He tells the story of one student who had been living in a car and struggling in school. With housing and help from the program, she soared and was elected student body president of her high school.

Smith said the program helped him stop using drugs. He was able to continue his high school completion program at Clover Park Technical College in Lakewood. He initially rode his bike to school from Graham, but soon met a fellow student making the commute who offered him a ride. He worked his way up from resident to a coordinator position at the YAH house.

“I wanted things to go well,” he said. “I didn’t want to play around.”

Benthien is preparing to move back to family in Indiana next week, with help from her grandmother. She is rushing to earn all her high school credits through a Bethel alternative program before moving day.

“Finding out these homes are closing put a dent in my plans,” she said. “These kinds of places help people out. They need to stay open.”

Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635, @DebbieCafazzo