Politics & Government

Tacoma, Pierce County team up to open youth shelter

The city of Tacoma and Pierce County have selected the operator of two Olympia youth shelters to open a shelter for teens and young adults in Tacoma next year.

The project grew out of interviews Pierce County officials did more than a year ago to ask homeless and about-to-be homeless youth what kind of help they needed. Many expressed a need for a crisis shelter.

The county, city and other groups have spent more than a year planning for this shelter, said Tess Colby, Pierce County’s manager of housing, homelessness and community development programs. When complete, teens and young adults will be able to drop in to start the process to reunite with family, seek mental health treatment, get a meal or just have a safe place to hang out for a while.

Community Youth Services of Olympia will phase in various services over time, beginning with a drop-in day shelter that could open by next fall. An overnight 20-bed shelter is to follow by summer 2016. The shelter will initially serve young adults, ages 18-24, and permit stays of up to 90 days.

While other organizations offer emergency housing to anyone over 18, young adults don’t often feel comfortable in adult shelters, said Charles Shelan, CEO of Community Youth Services, which has worked with youths in crisis for 45 years.

Youths are often afraid of so-called “mass shelters,” and they often do not expose youths to positive role models, Shelan said.

“Uniformly throughout the country, young adults feel intimidated and victimized in mass shelters,” Shelan said. “They will sleep in the woods someplace, or in other unsafe locations.”

Organizers of the Tacoma shelter hope to eventually expand services to include a 10-bed shelter for teens as young as 13. Currently, the state pays Community Youth Services to reserve three beds at one of its Olympia shelters for Pierce County teens ages 13-17. The nonprofit has helped 120 youths from Pierce County this year.

Kurt Miller, a Tacoma School Board member, will leaving his post as director of the REACH Center to serve as the executive director for Community Youth Services’ Pierce County operations.

Miller said many youths just don’t have a place to go, and that hurts their chances for a better life. He said he often sees this dynamic at the REACH Center, which helps people aged 16-24 get more education and find jobs. There are an estimated 3,000 youths and young adults in Pierce County who experience homelessness each year.

“Their family situation is very desperate,” Miller said. The young adults he sees are often in “survival mode.”

“When they go into survival mode, the only thing that counts is where they are going to stay the night and what they are going to eat,” Miller said. “When they get into stable housing it takes a long time for them to understand they are safe.”

At this new shelter, youths will have the opportunity to seek a more permanent living situation. Sometimes it doesn’t take much to turn a life around.

“When somebody’s housed, they get a job. They get promoted. … They get their high school diploma,” Miller said. “It happens quickly in a lot of cases.”

First, though, Tacoma and Pierce County are seeking a location for the shelter and drop-in day center. They expect to spend up to a combined $1.5 million for a building and remodeling.

Tacoma has pledged $1 million to operate the shelter in the next two years from the city’s one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax to pay for mental health and substance abuse services.

“We currently have nothing that is available for this population,” said Shelley Koeppen, a contract and program auditor with the city of Tacoma. “… A lot of these individuals, they have experienced a lot of trauma. They are going to have mental health issues related to the trauma they’ve experienced.”

Pierce County will not commit money toward the operations until a site is found, said Tess Colby, county manager of housing, homelessness and community development programs. The money it does eventually spend will come from the fund it uses to pay for homeless programs, she said.

Shelan said CYS will also seek donations from foundations and businesses to round out its funding. He expects to need $300,000 for the first full year of operations after the city and county chip in.