Orion Center for homeless youth opens in Seattle on October 12, 1983.

  • By Nick Rousso
  • Posted 12/10/2021
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 21358

On October 12, 1983, the Orion Multi-Service Center opens in Seattle's Belltown neighborhood. A safe haven for homeless youth, the center occupies 6,800 square feet in a converted clothing warehouse at 2521 2nd Avenue. The Orion Center, writes The Seattle Times, "will be unique in offering help in one place to walk-ins with a wide variety of problems. Included will be preventative programs, free meals, emergency housing, medical care, alternative education, employment training, legal assistance and pre-natal counseling" ("New Center ..."). Linda Reppond, who will serve as the center's executive director until 1985, calls it "the biggest local effort ever to try to come up with solutions to the problems of street kids" ("New Center ..."). 

A Collaborative Effort

Nine Seattle-area organizations -- and a $207,086 demonstration grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) -- helped make the Orion Center a reality. Perhaps the most influential contributing agency was The Shelter, which had been assisting homeless youth in various Seattle locations since 1974 (and which in 1990 would be renamed YouthCare). Its executive director in 1983 was Linda Reppond, who started working with runaways while a student at the University of Washington and later ran a nationwide telephone hotline for troubled teens. The Orion Center's first program director was Jerry Janacek. "Janacek said the center expects to see two kinds of youth," reported the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. "Runaways who could receive the help they need to successfully return home, and hard-core street kids involved in prostitution and drugs. Some 6,000 youths run away in King County every year and about 300 to 500 wind up as prostitutes in the 'Pike Street Corridor,' social workers say" ("Runaway Problem Needs ..."). 

Problems on the city's mean streets were rampant. Drug use, petty crime, violence, and sexual exploitation were common. Reppond stunned newspaper readers when she told a Times reporter, "If there's one thread that runs among most of Seattle's 300 street kids, it's that they were sexually abused when they were between 3, 4 and 5 years old" ("New Center ..."). Making matters more ominous, the first rumblings of the coming AIDS epidemic were just being felt when the Orion Center opened its doors in the fall of 1983. 

At the grand-opening ceremony, DHHS assistant secretary Dorcas Hardy explained that more than $20 million in federal money was being distributed to about 200 youth shelters nationwide, including a $128,963 grant to Catholic Community Services of Tacoma. But Hardy cautioned that federal funds were limited. She said that the success of ventures such as the Orion Center would depend on local support. The following day, Janacek appeared before the Seattle City Council in hopes of obtaining a $100,000 grant. "The center's sponsors hope the city will provide a $100,000 grant," read a P-I editorial that same day. "The county also should contribute. But, in addition, individuals, private and public organizations and businesses must support the Orion Center's effort to save these homeless, disturbed children before they become angry and lost adults" ("Street Kid Haven ..."). 

In February 1984, four months after the opening, DHHS secretary Margaret Heckler visited Seattle, toured the Orion Center, and promised continued federal support. She praised the center as an example of "how federal funds can be used to prime the pump of the private sector, 'rather than just throwing (government) money at the problem'" ("Cabinet Officer Pledges ..."). Just a year later, however, with federal funding scheduled to expire in August 1995, the Orion Center needed a lifeline from newly elected Washington Gov. Booth Gardner to continue operating. Gardner earmarked $720,000 for street youth in his proposed budget, while the budget prepared by former Gov. John Spellman before leaving office provided no money for street kids. 

Orion Over the Years

The Belltown location was the first of many homes for the Orion Center. The original space had been leased from an area developer and wasn't expected to be permanent. In 1985, a new Orion Center opened at 1820 Terry Avenue, and in 1991, the Orion Center moved again, to a spot on Virginia Street near I-5. A P-I reporter, visiting the center in 1998, observed: "The heart of YouthCare is an aging, three-story brick building called Orion Center at 1020 Virginia Street, a five-minute walk from the street subculture around First and Pike in downtown Seattle. At 3 p.m. on a rain-soaked Wednesday, the center teems with kids in baggy pants, sweaters, sneakers and miscellaneous body rings. They are busily trading wisecracks, shooting pool, scribbling through math problems. Several are curled up asleep on overstuffed chairs. Their only common denominator: They have no other place to go" ("YouthCare: Most Of All ...").

In November 2001, YouthCare launched a capital campaign with a goal of raising more than $7 million to build a new Orion Center. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation contributed $1.7 million, Paul Allen gave $1 million, and the YouthCare board pitched in $350,000. But after the initial surge of giving, fundraising stalled, and it would be nine years before the new facility was opened. Crucially, the Seattle-based Raynier Institute & Foundation gifted YouthCare $5.5 million, of which $2.1 million was used to pay off the mortgage on the new building. The Raynier Foundation was named after Seattleite James Widener Ray, who died in 2005 and left his entire $82 million estate to charities. The new center -- a 10,000-square-foot lowrise on a triangle of land at the intersection of Denny Way and Stewart Street -- was christened the James W. Ray Orion Center in recognition. 

By 2021, Orion Center was serving "as a safe and welcoming place for young people ages 12-24 during the day. Following dinner, the Orion Center transitions into the Young Adult Shelter, where twenty young people ages 18-24 can enjoy a hot meal, work on goals with their case managers, and sleep safely at night" (YouthCare website). On-site services included a healthcare clinic operated by Kaiser Permanente, legal aid through the Legal Counsel for Children & Youth, specialized case management through the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center, and mental health and chemical dependency counseling from the Ryther Center for Children & Youth. 


"More Aid For Homeless Youth," The Seattle Times, February 4, 2021, p. B1; "New Center Is Given $207,000 To Help Runaways," Ibid., October 12, 1983, p. G5; "Caring For And About Street Kinds," Ibid., November 11, 2001, p. B1; "YouthCare: Most Of All, A Refuge," Ibid., January 25, 1998, p. L1; "YouthCare Is New Name For Agency," Ibid., April 12, 1990, p. B3; "Runaway Problem Needs Local Cure, Federal Offical Says," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 13, 1983, (seattlepi.com); "Agencies And Services Help Kids On The Street," Ibid., August 10, 1986 (seattlepi.com); "YouthCare's Orion Center," YouthCare official website, accessed November 22, 2021 (https://youthcare.org/homeless-youth-services/engagement-services/youthcares-orion-center/); HistoryLink Online Encylopedia of Washington State History, "YouthCare (Seattle)" (by Nick Rousso), historylink.org. 

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