Many of Seattle's homeless youth would rather sleep in doorways, under Interstate 5, or in Westlake Park than stay at an overnight shelter geared toward adults. "The adult shelters are terrible places—they're scary," explains 21-year-old Damien, who says that on his one and only stay in a Seattle adult shelter, a man harassed him and called him "yummy."
"I was scared out of my mind," he says.
After that night more than a year ago, Damien resigned to living on the streets—until another homeless youth told him about YouthCare's James W. Ray Orion Center, located at the foot of Capitol Hill on Denny Way. But the center says it will be closing its overnight young adult shelter this winter, one of only two such shelters in the city, due to lack of funding.
But without shelter, many youth tend to congregate in public places downtown and on Capitol Hill, where business owners and media pundits chastise them for being unsightly and evidence of so-called street disorder. For example, Seattle Times guest columnist Philip W. Eaton wrote last week about his experience moving downtown: "We navigate our way uncomfortably among teenagers who occupy Westlake Park, hanging out with their pit bulls, backpacks and skateboards, lately with their babies, freely smoking their now-legal marijuana."
With the Orion Center's overnight shelter slated to close, other nonprofits are bracing for more homeless youth seeking other services—like meals and showers—at their doors. Mary Steele, executive director of New Horizons Ministries, a nonprofit in Belltown that offers such drop-in services, says, "If they can't be at Orion, they have to be somewhere—either at Westlake, where no one wants them, or here."
Every night at 8:30 p.m., a huddle of homeless young adults, all between the ages of 18 and 24, line up along the neon green wall of the Orion Center for the chance to sleep on the warm, well-worn floor.
"You don't know how many lives it saves," says a 19-year-old woman named Zero, while eating lunch at Orion Center. She became homeless a year ago. "I used to sleep under the bridges a lot, or party to stay awake and not be cold." After using the center's beds, kitchen, and social services, Zero is now employed, advocating for resources for other homeless youth.
People like Zero avoid adult shelters for several reasons. They are populated largely with drug addicts, alcoholics, and the mentally ill—and the caseworkers provide services tailored toward those problems. But homeless youth have unique challenges.
"Many of the young people we see were actually kicked out of their homes," explains Hedda McLendon, director of programs at the Orion Center. "About 74 percent of the young people we see are physically and sexually abused at home, and about 40 percent leave or are kicked out because they're gay." Because the adults in their own lives have mistreated them, many young people are reluctant to trust older strangers at shelters.
"I went to an adult shelter and I walked out," remembers 19-year-old Brittany, who is also a familiar face at the Orion Center. "For someone with a traumatic past, it's traumatizing to go into an adult shelter," she explains. "It's not a safe place."
By day, the center offers about 60 homeless youth the county's widest array of services—from private lockers and laundry to a computer lab, barista training, and GED classes. Each night, 20 sleeping pallets are unrolled on its floors as makeshift beds. And they're always full—as is the other homeless youth shelter operating in the city.
"We are full every night," confirms Kristine Cunningham, director of ROOTS, a 45-bed young adult shelter operating in the University District. "The need is far greater than we could ever have space for."
This winter, the Orion Center will close its overnight shelter. A three-year, $250,000 grant from a local group, Raynier Institute and Foundation, which helped cover the cost of running the shelter, ends in December and has not been renewed. On November 3, the shelter beds will be closed to the general public (it will still sleep several "peer leaders" who are in the midst of completing job training and education programs). By February 1, the shelter will be closed completely.
The Orion Center's budget woes don't end there. They are slated to lose roughly $1.2 million in federal and local grants by the end of the year, due to shifting priorities on a local level (the Raynier Institute is focusing its funding on supporting artists instead of homeless youth, for instance) and cutbacks from the federal government. "We'll have to scale back staff and drop-in services by 50 percent," spokeswoman Liz Trautman says.
None of the cuts are coming from city and county government; nevertheless, the center's staff members are lobbying both the city and county councils for funds to fill this gap. City council president Sally Clark is currently pushing to earmark $130,000 for the Orion Center, with the hopes that the county council would fund an additional $120,000.
"We can't lose 20 percent of these shelter beds when, even now, they're turning kids away," Clark says. "That is completely counterproductive to where we, as a city, are trying to go."
Many suited factions of the city—including the Downtown Seattle Association—have been wringing their hands about downtown "street disorder" and crime. As Eaton said in his guest editorial, "We must further empower the extraordinary work already happening" in order to fix a "broken" downtown.
If people like Eaton want to help downtown (and help homeless youth in the process), they should step up and help save the Orion Center.