By Zach Barlow
“If you only have two options, either live here and watch my mom get beat and my father get drunk, or live outside, which one do you think you would choose,” asked Hannah Fisk, 28, regarding the hard decisions many homeless youths must face in Whatcom County.
Fisk is the programs advisor for Northwest Youth Services, NWYS, a Whatcom County-based organization whose goal is to “foster self-reliance in youth,” she said.
NWYS offers housing for anyone from ages 13-24, Fisk said. Along with housing, the organization offers programs such as mental health services and drug and alcohol abuse counseling.
The group also helps young people get part-time jobs within the community and work in the NWYS garden, with the goal of selling the produce at local farmer’s markets. The garden is located on North State Street in downtown Bellingham.
“Every youth we see is treated with dignity and respect, they are acknowledged for their strengths,” Fisk said. “They leave feeling like a valued member of society, that they deserve housing, and that they can contribute to this world.”
A Whatcom Community College student, who wishes to remain anonymous, said that he was a resident at NWYS through their Positive Adolescent Development Program (PAD), for 3 months.
He said that before he got connected with NWYS, he was staying with friends but sought housing at the PAD because he did not want to rely on his friends for a place to stay.
In 2013, the point-in-time census of Whatcom County, an annual assessment of an area’s homeless population and its demographics, accounted for 133 homeless people under the age of 18, or about 24 percent of all homeless people in Whatcom County. Out of the 133 homeless youth, 17 percent were under the age of 10.
Youth homelessness in Whatcom County has seen some startling growth in recent years, Fisk said. In 2008, NWYS had 58 applications for housing, in 2009 that number rose to 200, and in 2010 it doubled.
“I feel like the definition of ‘homeless’ has expanded,” the Whatcom student said. “In my situation, I don’t stay in housing anymore but I’d still be considered homeless.”
Fisk said she believes the recent spike in homeless youth has a lot to do with the recession.
“As the recession hit, more families became displaced, and because of that you see more youths infiltrating an already existing system [homeless housing],” she said.
Trying to find any particular reasons for youth homelessness is a difficult thing to do, Fisk explained. However, in her six years of experience with NWYS, she said she has noticed some similar situations and factors that contribute tothe issue.
“The LGBT communities are disproportionately homeless. It’s not uncommon for a family to disown a gay child,” Fisk said. “Also, religion sometimes forces families to kick gay kids out of the house.”
Fisk said other events that may lead to a homeless youth are parental drug or alcohol abuse and undiagnosed mental health issues.
The Whatcom student said that he used to live with his mother, and “she would bring home boyfriends; most were on meth. I would visit my dad, and when he found out about some of the things I was doing to make money he made me move in with him,” he said. “My dad was abusive, one night he called the cops on himself because he thought he killed me. Then I moved in with my grandma until the 6th grade.”
The student said he rarely spoke with his brother, who has been battling mental health issues and drug addiction.
“[The PAD] was a last resort,” he said.
Fisk explained that no matter what an individual’s background may be, NWYS holds an “open door policy.”
NWYS coordinates with most other housing programs in Whatcom County to ensure that “there are no wrong doors to walk through,” Fisk said.
NWYS housing for minors has 6 bedrooms and is a “group-living environment,” Fisk said. For rent the tenants are required to pay 30% of their monthly income to NWYS, and the money is then put into a savings account which they will gain access to once they move out.
“The goal is to help support them, perhaps enough to get their own place,” Fisk said.
Fisk says she is a firm believer in prevention, or the preventing of circumstances that could lead to homelessness before they happen, and the power of a loving environment.
“If I had all the funding in the world I would take tons of money and put it into prevention services,” Fisk said. “I would also work to keep youth with families where if they screwed up, the worst thing that could happen is [that] they’re told they’re grounded.”
Community members and organizations in Whatcom County are currently working on a 10-year plan to end homelessness which consists of combining various preventative measures with a renewed focus on providing stable housing and coordinating different services throughout the county, Fisk said.
“It’s not that homelessness is going to end, it’s that people will be homeless for a very short time,” Fisk said. “My goal is to eventually work myself out of a job.”
While conditions at the PAD may not be ideal for everyone, the Whatcom student said he believes it can be utilized as a stepping stone into a more stable situation.
“I think it’s a great resource for people who don’t have any other options,” the Whatcom student said. “The program works great if you’re not on drugs… It’s best for people who say it’s an investment for themselves and not an easy way out.”
“No matter what happens I’ve always been able to smile and find the positive… I’ll always be grateful for a place to come home to everyday,” the student said, adding that he is currently staying part-time at a friend’s house and part-time at his youth pastor’s house.
Fisk said that in her line of work “people burn out very quickly” due to “secondary trauma” or witnessing a traumatic event. However, that hasn’t stopped her from gaining positive insight in an otherwise fairly negative situation.
“I think [homeless] youth drives people away. They can be very real,” Fisk said. “They keep fighting, but you want them to keep fighting. They’re fighting for their dreams, goals, and beliefs.”
Fisk believes the perseverance of young homeless people is often overlooked.
“I would share the resilience of young people. They’re still here. You have to acknowledge that and the reason that they’re still here is because of that strength,” Fisk said. “I wish people could see the heart inside instead of being so afraid of them.”
Fisk said she believes there is still much work to be done in order to have any serious effects on youth homelessness in Whatcom County, but she remains optimistic.
She holds on to her “ultimate belief that [people] can change and that [they] all should have hope for the future,” she said. “We don’t save them, we’re not superheroes. We just help them save themselves.”