YouthCare, a Seattle-based nonprofit, provides services to young people experiencing homelessness. Its roots trace to 1974, when members of a dying church in suburban Shoreline bequeathed $40,000 to create The Shelter, a safe haven for "runaways." After the church was sold, The Shelter moved to the Queen Anne neighborhood, opened a 24-hour crisis center in Wallingford in 1975, and expanded into a larger facility on Beacon Hill by 1981 as operations grew rapidly. For a time the agency was known as Seattle Youth and Community Services until a new name -- YouthCare -- was introduced in 1990. By 2021, YouthCare had a yearly operating budget of $18 million and offered services at 19 locations in Seattle with programs focused on housing, education, employment, wellness, and community.
A Helping Hand
The idea that grew into YouthCare was first discussed in, of all places, Missoula, Montana. It was there in 1973 at a regional conference of American Baptist Church leaders that the Rev. Robert Damkoehler, a minister from Shoreline Baptist Church, met William Hintz (1947-2007), the son of a minister from Seattle.
The men shared an abiding concern for the welfare of young runaways. Hintz had spent time after college working on the streets of Berkeley, California. After returning to Washington, he served as the director of youth services in Everett, until funding ran out. "Hintz doesn't look like the Baptist minister's son he is," wrote Earl Hansen in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer of Hintz, who wore shoulder-length hair, wire-rimmed glasses, and an unruly beard. "With a master's degree and six years experience with the Berkeley Youth Alternatives program that includes a runaway center and coffee houses, Hintz sees the runaway 'not as a black ghetto [problem], but a white, middle-upper class, city and suburban problem'" ("Runaway Youths Offered ...").
In the suburbs north of Seattle, Damkoehler also had seen first-hand the plight of homeless youth. The Seattle Times wrote of "haggard groups of teenage runaways camping in the woods" behind Shoreline Baptist Church ("A Church's Legacy ..."). YouthCare's website tells the story of a teenage girl found by church members in the parking lot. "The young woman had run away from a volatile situation at home and was struggling with substance abuse. After being taken to the hospital, community members were shocked to learn that police had arrested her instead of offering her treatment or services" ("YouthCare History").
More than once, the homeless went directly to congregants with pleas for help. One day a young girl and her 2-year-old brother knocked on JoAnn and Larry Sims's front door, "saying their mother had left them and they needed help" ("YouthCare History"). Church members Harriet and Walt McClain also sheltered the needy. "We took as many as we could into our home," Walt McClain recalled. "But they needed a real program" ("YouthCare: Most Of All ..."). In Missoula, Damkoehler and Hintz "talked about the church's anguish because it was not helping young people in need. A committee was organized by the church to work with Hintz on the proposal which led eventually to beginning The Shelter" ("A Church's Legacy ...").
Birth of The Shelter
Shoreline Baptist Church found itself in financial straits in the early 1970s. It was not alone. Churches in the U.S. were closing at a brisk pace, estimated by researchers at 3,000 per year by 1974. At Shoreline Baptist Church, "there were too few people in the pews, too little money in the collection plate, a loss of evangelical thrust, and a sense that the church and neighborhood were growing apart" ("A Church's Legacy ..."). In 1974 the congregation agreed to disband the church, sell its property at 16508 8th Avenue NE, and distribute the proceeds to The Shelter and other causes.
"The legacy left by dying churches is various," wrote Seattle Times religion editor Ray Ruppert in 1975. "Bitterness, sometimes. Or memories. Hope, occasionally. In the case of the Shoreline church, which gave up the ghost last year, a will was left bequeathing a considerable share of the church's assets to The Shelter, a program to deal with young runaways. That $40,000 legacy, like the talents in the New Testament parable, has begun to multiply with use. The Shelter has been awarded a $73,145 federal grant this fiscal year under the Juvenile Delinquency Prevention Act. The church money kept The Shelter going for a year while the federal grant was pursued" ("A Church's Legacy ...").
The Shelter, which began with three beds at Shoreline Baptist Church, moved into donated space on Queen Anne Hill after the church building was sold in 1974. Hintz stayed on, and the staff grew quickly. Jan Lowe, 26 years old with a master's degree in psychology, was hired to work with parents of homeless youth. Bob Beals, 25, and Mel Schwager, 21, also had come on board by June 1974. It wasn't long before the new space -- two rooms in the back of Queen Anne Baptist Church, with an exit onto an alleyway -- became inadequate. In April 1976 a second Shelter facility was opened, at 4017 Wallingford Avenue N in the Wallingford neighborhood. Open around the clock, it was the first 24-hour crisis intervention house for teenagers in the Pacific Northwest. By 1981 the Shelter had moved again, to a larger house on Beacon Hill at 1545 12th Avenue S.
The program administered by The Shelter was intended to reunite runaways with families, if possible. "Once a runaway comes to The Shelter (because police bring him, courts send him or a friend encourages him) a 'social plan' is set up to deal with his situation. This may include a cooling-off period in a short-term, temporary foster home" ("A Church's Legacy ..."). Parents were notified, as required by law, and expectations were spelled out. "The Shelter is open to children 11 to 17 for a stay of from three to five days, with parental permission necessary after 24 hours," reported the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 1981. "If a child does not want his parents notified, he is sent to the offices of the Department of Social and Health Services ... The Shelter's main goal is to get the runaway to identify what he wants and then help him attain that goal" ("Looking For Food ...").
The Perils of Homelessness
While the idea of running away from home was popularized in American literature by Mark Twain and others, most romantic notions of youth homelessness had been dashed by the mid-1970s. One catalyst for change came in 1973 with the disclosure of the murders of 27 teenage boys in Texas. Wrote The New York Times:
"At the time that Houston police were unearthing the victims' bodies, they reported a flood of inquiries from parents of missing children feared to be among the dead. Police in other cities ... reported a similar surge of anxiousness from parents. In Washington, Congressional aides to the sponsors of legislation to create and help subsidize shelters for runaways across the country say that the Houston murders also may have improved the legislation's chances of passing. ... Casper W. Weinberger, Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, said he would hold a series of meetings with juvenile authorities around the country on the problem of runaways. He, too, said he was acting in response to news of the Houston mass murders" ("New Approaches ...").
In Seattle that same year, The Shelter was just getting started. It had a few beds and a handful of affiliated foster homes, but there were an estimated 5,000 runaways in King County in 1972 alone. "There are two kinds of runaways," Hintz told the P-I, "those who are running from something and those who are running to something." Most, he said, are running from a situation at home. "The mean age is 15 to 15 1/2, with many 'immature' or 'spoiled.' And the reasons for running vary widely, including alcoholic parents, a molesting father, unloving tension between parents, youths on dope, and non-communication. Nearly every kind of reason imaginable has spilled from the young runaway" ("Runaway Youths Offered 'Shelter'").
Runaways in Seattle were in frequent peril. In 1974, the Seattle Police Department had only two detectives assigned to track down missing children, a daunting task made even more arduous because running away was not a crime, making it difficult for detectives to obtain search warrants to enter buildings. In 1975, Hintz estimated that 65 percent of runaways were girls, many of them being sexually abused, many of them being hidden by their abusers. In 1977, the Post-Intelligencer reported on the exploitation of homeless young males in Seattle under the headline "Sex Market For Boys." The story by Hilda Bryant revealed sordid tales of pimps, "Sugar Daddies," "kept" boys, and rampant abuse. Seattle vice officers estimated there were 75 boy prostitutes hustling on the streets or in downtown clubs. When police arrested a convicted sex offender for harboring runaways and escapees from juvenile institutions, "they took a van loaded with eight young people ranging in ages from 12 to 17 to the Youth Center. Two of the kids had serum hepatitis and all had been exposed to syphilis" ("Sex Market ..."). A contemporaneous study by The Shelter found that 64 percent of the girls and 50 percent of the boys hustling on Seattle streets had personal histories of sexual abuse or physical neglect.
The Shelter had been providing services for juvenile prostitutes since its inception in 1974. By 1977 it had branched out around the state to help direct runaway centers in Blaine, Grays Harbor, and Vancouver. A program of activities was developed and adult volunteers were recruited "to help youth who want to learn arts, crafts, photography and woodshop, or who can use a tutor or athletic coach" ("Shelter Needs Volunteers"). In 1980, The Shelter partnered with two other Seattle agencies on Project START, an effort to get homeless youth into job training. In 1981 Pam Morse, a counselor at The Shelter, said "70 percent of the kids that pass through here go back to a stable environment. Usually that means back home" ("Finding Shelter"). For the other 30 percent, the outlook was more precarious. Going home wasn't necessarily an option. "I've had parents tell me to place their child right in the donut shop," Morse said, referring to the Donut House, a notorious teen hangout and criminal enterprise at 1st Avenue and Pike Street in downtown Seattle.
The 1980s: "Streetwise" and AIDs
The Shelter expanded its range of services in the 1980s. Linda Reppond had succeeded Bill Hintz as executive director by 1983, and in October of that year The Shelter, buoyed by a $207,000 federal grant, partnered with eight other agencies to open the Orion Multi-Service Center in the Belltown neighborhood. (Hintz later served for 17 years as the director of development for the Boyer Children's Clinic in Seattle. He died in 2007 at age 59.) The Orion Center provided free meals, emergency housing, medical care, educational opportunities, job placement services, legal assistance, and pre-natal counseling, all in one location. Reppond called it "the biggest local effort ever to come up with solutions to the problems of street kids" ("New Center Is Getting ...").
The problems were numerous: A 1981 study conducted by The Shelter found that 83 percent of street kids were out of school, 61 percent had been arrested, 78 percent were unemployed, 85 percent were drug users, 72 percent of the young women and girls had been pregnant, 71 percent were involved in prostitution, and 46 percent had been sexually or physically abused. Mental illness was pervasive: According to a 1997 University of Washington study, 68 percent of Seattle's homeless youth had at least one mental or emotional disorder, including depression, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, conduct disorder, mania, or attention deficit/hyperactivity, and 43 percent had attempted suicide.
The plight of homeless youth was further magnified in 1984 with the release of Streetwise, an Academy Award-nominated documentary film. Inspired by a 1983 article in Life magazine and culled from 56 hours of footage shot in Seattle, Streetwise showed young street people brandishing guns, shooting up heroin, and dumpster-diving for food. The Post-Intelligencer was highly critical of Life's photographs, some of which were staged. Scenes in the movie also were set up. "The lives of runaway children who inhabit a violent, lonely world of drugs, prostitution and pretty crime on Seattle's streets are so mean and pitiful there is no need to portray them as worse than they are to gain public attention," the P-I wrote under the headline "Life Exploits Kids." Officials at The Shelter also were critical of Life and the documentary filmmakers. "The thing that bothered me," Reppond said, "was that a lot of stuff is happening now that looks like good solutions. We haven't had one word from the Life team on that" ("Dear 20/20 ..."). One of the subjects in the film, a 14-year-old girl, "is one of those kids who could leave the street now but won't because of the film," Reppond said. "We've got shelter for her now but she won't take it until the film is over" ("Life And The Runaways ...").
The scourge of AIDS also came into play in the 1980s. The first two local cases were reported in 1983, and by the end of the decade the disease had claimed 727 lives in King County, most of them young gay men. It wasn't until 1986 that condoms were shown to prevent HIV transmission. Mike Ruiz, a counselor at The Shelter, said that about one-third of street kids identified as gay, and a subsequent study by University of Washington psychology professor Ana Mari Cauce showed that most young people on the street had only a vague understanding of the risks of unprotected sex. By the mid-1990s the agency had developed a range of services for at-risk youth, including 37 who were HIV-positive.
LGBTQ youth were, and still are, overrepresented in the homeless population. For many young people, their homosexuality led to conflict at home and discrimination at school or on the job. The Post-Intelligencer wrote of a boy "who came home to a father with a shotgun on the table, who told him he had an hour to get everything he owned out of the house. For some kids, the alternative becomes the streets, scrounging food, resorting to prostitution, dabbling in drugs, and getting what help they can from agencies such as the Orion Center" ("I Think I'm Gay"). Also featured in the newspaper report was Jack, "a 21-year-old former male prostitute, who lived in San Francisco before coming to Seattle. He hustled to support his addiction to crystal methedrine. He moved to Seattle and sought help at the Orion Center" ("I Think I'm Gay").
Two years after the Orion Center opened, The Shelter reorganized as Seattle Youth and Community Services (SYCS), with Reppond as executive director. In 1985 Victoria Wagner, who had joined The Shelter in 1979 as an outreach worker, succeeded Reppond. Wagner was all too familiar with homelessness: She had run away from home at age 14 to escape an abusive stepfather, spent time on the streets of Denver, and then was arrested and ordered by a judge to spend a year in a girls' correctional facility after she refused to go back home. "Since that time, Wagner said, she's wanted to use her experience to lend a voice to homeless kids and 'give them a sense of empowerment'" ("Standing Up ...").
In 1986, SYCS launched Threshold, a program for girls who had been on the street for more than two years and had a history of physical or sexual abuse. In 1989 the agency opened the 12-bed Straley House in the University District, its first community-living home for homeless people ages 18 to 21.
And still SYCS's programs and services continued to multiply. By the end of the decade it was receiving federal funding to combat gang violence. The Seattle Police Department identified 600 gang members or associates in the city in 1989 and reported 71 drive-by shootings in the first five months of the year, roughly one every other day. SYCS recruited social workers to provide counseling and case-management services to at-risk youth. One hire was Ron Carr, a former Golden Gloves boxing champion and gang member from Chicago. "Carr may be Seattle's only full-time paid street counselor who specializes in working with youth gangs," reported The Seattle Times. "Every day he faces a problem that terrorizes the hearts of the sheltered middle class ... His official title with his employer, Seattle Youth and Community Services, is outreach and caseworker to gang and pre-gang youth. To kids on the street, he's big brother, counselor, advocate, teacher, enforcer" ("A Fighting Chance").
In April 1990, Seattle Youth and Community Services adopted a new name -- YouthCare. Its yearly budget had increased from $550,000 in 1985 to more than $1 million by the end of the decade, but more was needed. The Shelter reported it was turning away an average of 40 young people a month because of lack of space.
The Becca Bill
Children's and parents' interests were often at odds in efforts to alleviate homelessness. Lawmakers, police and the courts, and agencies such as The Shelter occupied the middle, balancing the needs of homeless youth and the rights and obligations of parents. Prior to 1978, running away in Washington was a criminal act. After July 1, 1978, when a revised juvenile code went into effect, "runaways in this state are no longer considered juvenile delinquents who are breaking the law. They are class status offenders, meaning they are doing something that would not be considered an offense if it were done by an adult" ("Looking For Food, Shelter ..."). This meant children as young as 13 were free to do as they pleased, so long as they avoided arrest, even if it meant vanishing into the night. For many parents, this lack of control fostered a sense of helplessness, and many well-meaning parents agonized about the welfare of their absent children.
In 1981, P-I reporter Merry Nye interviewed parents of runaways, including Jackie, a mother whose 17-year-old daughter left home. "During the day I feel anger about what she is doing to the rest of the family," Jackie said. "When I'm at the grocery store, I wonder if she is eating right. I've been taking my anger out on people around me at work ... At night, I worry about her safety. The darker it gets, the more scared I get about her" ("Looking For Food, Shelter ...").
The pendulum swung back toward parental rights following a series of murders of young homeless people in Washington in the early 1990s. In the most publicized of the crimes, Becca Hedman, a 13-year-old from Tacoma, was beaten to death in Spokane by a "john" after she walked away from a drug treatment center. The public clamored for action, and in 1995 a bill dealing with homeless youth, written by Washington Attorney General Chris Gregoire and endorsed by Gov. Mike Lowry, was signed into law. Dubbed the Becca Bill, the new law was "passionately pushed by parent groups and overwhelmingly approved by lawmakers ... For the first time in nearly two decades, the state will hold some runaway youth under lock and key. New crisis centers will keep kids for up to five days of cooling off and assessment. Parents will be able to place a teen in a mental- or drug-treatment center without the child's consent, subject to an outside review within 15 days" ("Teens Fear Fallout ...").
For YouthCare, the new law was problematic. Instead of a 72-hour window to notify parents, they now would have only eight hours. Officials feared that the threat of police intervention would drive runaways further underground. "YouthCare has been one of the chief opponents of the Becca Bill, along with homeless advocates and youth advocates," reported the P-I on May 8, 1995. "Several leaders of those groups were to meet with Lowry today in a last-minute attempt to persuade him to veto portions of the law" ("Teens Fear Fallout ..."). Before signing the Becca Bill into law, Lowry did veto the most restrictive provision, which would have given judges the authority to lock up habitual runaways for up to six months.
A Community Effort
Starting with the seed money gifted in 1974 by the disbanding church in Shoreline, YouthCare has relied heavily on private donors. In 1978 The Shelter, still using mostly volunteer help, reached out to the Post-Intelligencer's Action column readers with a hopeful request: "DEAR ACTION: We at the Shelter Runaway Center in Wallingford are in dire need of a clothes dryer that someone might wish to donate. Often we get clients who come in from the rain with only the clothes on their back -- sopping wet. (One young woman tried to dry her jeans in the oven, but this proved inefficient.) We'd be most happy to pick up such an appliance, provided it works!" ("Readers Write," November 1). A follow-up letter appeared just nine days later: "DEAR ACTION: All of us at the Shelter Runaway Center in Wallingford want to thank all of your readers for helping us. We not only received a washer -- AND a dryer -- but many donations of clothing as well as money. We love you all!" ("Readers Write," November 10)
Later, Hollywood actor and Seattle resident Tom Skerritt beat the fundraising drum at YouthCare charity events and gave the organization a recognizable face. When a capital campaign for a new Orion Center ran out of steam in the mid-2000s, Seattle band Pearl Jam held a benefit concert at Benaroya Hall to help reinvigorate the drive. Macklemore, The Presidents of the United States of America, and Critters Buggin were among the other musical acts that did benefit shows over the years, while Paul Allen, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Raikes Foundation, the Raynier Foundation, and others donated millions of dollars. By 2021, YouthCare's annual operating budget exceeded $18 million.
In 2003, in a partnership with Fare Start and Starbucks, YouthCare began a barista training and education program. Over its first four years, the program enrolled 228 homeless youth, and 125 of those obtained unsubsidized employment. While federal budget cuts depleted the program in 2007, it survived and thrived for another 14-plus years. In 2013, YouthCare reported an operating deficit of $1.2 million, citing federal cuts and expiring foundation grants. Some daytime services at the Orion House were eliminated, and there were rumblings that the center might have to be shuttered, but YouthCare weathered that financial storm as well.
Into the Millennium
Vicki Wagner ran YouthCare for 19 years until 2004, when she left for a job with the National Network for Youth in Washington, D.C. By then, YouthCare had moved its headquarters to the Home of Hope, a $4.8 million, four-story facility near University Village. Completed in 1999, it was paid for with $2.2 million from federal and local sources, $1 million from the state of Washington, and $1.6 million from private donors.
Under Wagner's watch, YouthCare "expanded its housing programs, including emergency shelters, adolescent group homes, and transitional and independent living programs in Ravenna, Sand Point, Rainier Valley, and the University District. All kids in the program have access to support services and to YouthCare staff. YouthCare also offers a Street Outreach program five nights a week, in which staff head out to Seattle's streets to offer young people food and direct them to services. The organization also boasts an 'adventure-based therapy program,' giving kids a chance to go rock-climbing, hiking, snowboarding and camping, and to take part in community service projects around the city" ("Standing Up For Street Kids ..."). Wagner was honored in 2004 with a lifetime achievement award at the annual Friends of Street Kids luncheon in Seattle.
The next permanent director, Melinda Giovengo, lasted nearly as long as Wagner. She too oversaw tremendous growth as YouthCare's operating budget nearly quadrupled during her 14 years in charge, but Giovengo couldn't survive organizational discord and allegations of racial insensitivity, and was forced out in July 2021. Colleen Echohawk replaced Giovengo on an interim basis. Wrote YouthCare board chair Karen Jones in a news release announcing Giovengo's exit: "In her 14 years as our CEO, Melinda has helped build YouthCare from an agency on the verge of having to close its doors to the organization it is today, a nationally-recognized leader in addressing youth homelessness, with 19 sites throughout the city, an $18 million budget, and a reputation for leading innovative programming in support of young people" ("YouthCare CEO ...").
With YouthCare in a leading role, much progress has been made -- the percentage of youths in the overall homeless population of King County declined from 14 percent in 2016 to 8 percent in 2020. But many of the problems are as intractable as they were back in 1973, when Bill Hintz met the Rev. Damkoehler in Montana. There have never been enough beds to provide refuge for everyone, and on any given night some 1,000 youth are homeless in Seattle. "Homeless kids who aren't lucky enough to find space in a shelter for the night might wind up sleeping in a doorway, or in some abandoned building or under a bush in places like Capitol Hill's Cal Anderson Park. Or maybe they won't sleep at all, wandering the streets instead, sidestepping trouble until the sun comes up" ("A Geography Of Homelessness").