A child sick with the flu lay sprawled on the floor. Nearby, a dog nosed around a box of bread and another filled with onions. Two adults worked to unclog a stopped-up toilet. When the adults weren’t looking, a second child fed the dog part of a baguette.
It was just regular day at Peace for the Streets by Kids from the Streets (PSKS), a center on Capitol Hill that provides services and support to homeless youth and young people under 26. The center, which has been at its current location for more than six years, exudes a grassroots charm. It has provided a safe place for young people with few resources and few places to go.
But in late October, money trouble threatened the safe haven. Elaine Simons, PSKS co-founder, announced in a press release that the nonprofit would close if it didn’t receive an infusion of cash. The organization had no money in the bank and couldn’t pay rent and cover payroll.
With the help of local media coverage, more than $200,000 poured in from donors, funds that helped pull the agency back from the brink of closure. Soon after, Simons told Real Change the money came with expectations from the community, and she felt an obligation to change how she steered PSKS as its executive director.
But Simons no longer works at PSKS, and her old office has been turned into a de facto storage area. Simons said that she was pushed out in early November, but with privacy laws surrounding nonprofit personnel decisions, details of the situation will likely remain a mystery. For nearly six weeks, the organization operated without an executive director, a big change considering Simons had held the post for close to 18 years.
Even with the recent economic crisis and a change in leadership, some young people interviewed at PSKS, who didn’t want their names used, say they’re hopeful. The changes won’t stop PSKS from providing the services homeless young people need.
Interim executive director Susan Fox said that she does not plan to change PSKS. “That’s my direction, to continue the mission as it is,” she said.
Fox, who started at PSKS in mid-December, said she first heard of the organization roughly six years ago, when she served as the executive director at Jubilee Women’s Center, which assists homeless and low-income women. Her top priority is to help PSKS find a new executive director, a process which she said could take three to six months. “People want this place to go forward,” she said.
Part of going forward means looking at the present, and she will perform an assessment of how the organization is run.
Currently, PSKS operates nine programs, including L.E.A.P., an internship program, R.I.S.K., an educational program that helps young people obtain GEDs, and Donut Dialogues, which offers a forum where young homeless people can speak with local business owners and police officers. PSKS also offers a program called Core membership, which is a self-governed community that has a voice in key decisions at the organization. Two core members vote on the board of directors.
PSKS Development Director Bryan Baker said the organization’s annual operating budget is just over $450,000, and roughly 70 percent of that comes from grants. Baker said PSKS has received more than $200,000 since the call went out for funds, and it has put the organization on more stable footing.
One major donor was the City of Seattle. On Oct. 23, Mayor Mike McGinn announced a $20,000 matching grant, allocating money from the park department’s Youth Development Fund.
A spokesperson for the parks department wrote in an email to Real Change that the city will release the matching funds once PSKS documents they have the match.
Baker said that asking donors and foundations for money when PSKS faced closure came with risks. “No one wants to get on board a sinking ship,” he said.
Gone after 18 years
But Simons believes she’s the one who’s sunk.
Simons said that she went to the board in September to inform them of the dire financial situation. She said that while the board considered options, she wrote a press release. By mid-October, newspapers reported on the agency’s plight, and TV news programs broadcast Simons and a staff member making an appeal to the community. Donations rolled in.
But on Oct. 30, Simons said the board held a “secret meeting,” one she only found out about while it was in progress. When she went to the meeting, held at a lawyer’s office, she said she wasn’t allowed to participate. Hours later, she received a suspension letter. A week later, she was terminated. “I would never know that, inadvertently, by saving my agency, it would get me fired,” Simon said.
In an email to Real Change, board president Andrea Vitalich said that confidential employment information could not be shared. But she wrote the board was grateful for Simons’ 18 years of dedication: “[Simons] co-founded a fantastic organization, and everyone involved with PSKS is fully committed to building on the mission and founding principles she helped to establish.”
Sharon Lucas, a retired professional interim executive director for nonprofits, said you cannot always link a financial crisis at a nonprofit with the executive director. That’s because nonprofits operate with an unusual business model. “For every unit we provide, we lose money,” she said.
Even so, Lucas, who has worked as a consultant to Real Change, said nonprofit boards rely on executive directors to keep an agency well-funded. If that doesn’t happen, the board needs to examine and assess the executive director. “And boards need to look at themselves in that matter, too,” she said.
Former PSKS board member Connie Huffine said she had concerns about how the board handled Simons’ termination. Huffine said she phoned in to the meeting Simons didn’t attend. When Huffine sensed the board was leaning toward termination, she kept asking, “Why?” Huffine said she never got an acceptable answer. “I was totally outvoted,” she said.
Huffine resigned from the board soon after. Days later her husband Charles resigned for similar reasons. He had been on the board for more than 16 years.
While both said they believe the board members are all good people, the Huffines have concerns about what the future holds for PSKS. Connie Huffine said the organization didn’t have a lot of rules, which allowed it to help a population often underserved by more bureaucratic agencies. “That’s what was so special,” she said.
Simons said that she’s still unclear why she was let go, and that she hopes PSKS will continue to serve the most marginalized young people. She said she still refers to PSKS as her “baby,” adding, “It wasn’t a job. It was my life.”
Interim director Susan Fox said that when a nonprofit loses a long-term executive director, it can cause anxiety about where the organization is headed. At PSKS, she said the staff and board remain dedicated to helping homeless youth, even with the change in leadership. “It’s an opportunity,” she said. “There’s a real need out there, and we’re going to fill that need.”