As a teenager, Charlie Duling slept in church doorways and under bridges. Sometimes he found an empty classroom at Garfield High School to stay in.
From age 12 to 18, Duling shunned shelters and day centers that serve homeless teens, opting to survive the streets exposed but independent.
Today, he’s a hulking 22-year-old with a beard and a baseball cap. No one would mess with him, but Duling remembers how it felt to live in fear, worried that people offering him a place to stay and food to eat would turn him in to foster care.
Once, a case manager at The Orion Center nearly persuaded Duling to get help. He was 14 at the time, and agreed to return to the center for a meeting, but when he arrived he saw two men in a car and thought they were the police.
“That night I just ran,” he said. “I grabbed my stuff and took off.”
Once he turned 18, Duling knew he’d no longer be sent back to foster care, and he reached out for the help he’d shunned for years. He now lives in a shelter.
Today, the network of services Duling worked so hard to avoid is undergoing a transformation aimed at better serving homeless youth by getting to know them better.
On June 8, King County started a program to collect data on youth and young adults who access services in the area, and consolidated waiting lists for various shelters and transitional housing programs into a single list. Outreach workers are visiting shelters and day centers to meet youth and collect personal information such as name, date of birth and whether they’d like to reconnect with their families.
The system, called coordinated engagement, is the first effort of its kind to determine who homeless youth are and what they need. It’s also the latest in a shift toward collecting information on a group that often tries to remain anonymous.
A King County survey found 776 homeless or unstably housed youth and young adults in January. Of these, 96 were under 18. Data collection could offer the county a better picture of this population and how to serve them, but it comes at a price. In an effort to preserve their security and independence, people who are homeless often wish to remain anonymous.
Social service agencies across the county as well as the city of Seattle, nonprofits and charitable organizations have pledged to support the data collection and outreach, which will cost about $325,000 a year.
As the biggest and most widely coordinated effort to improve teen outreach the county has ever undertaken, coordinated engagement represents a paradigm shift in social services, said Jon Brumbach, spokesperson for the Mockingbird Society.
“People are realizing that homeless youth and young adults have very unique needs,” he said.
By implementing coordinated engagement, Seattle-King County could become a model for other communities.
“We are really poised to be the place that figures this out,” said Kristine Cunningham, executive director of Rising Out of the Shadows (ROOTS) young adult shelter in the University district.
On July 8, Catholic Community Services (CCS), which is leading the effort, sent outreach workers to The Orion Center and other agencies. They met with homeless people and asked for their names, ages, if they were homeless and whether or not they would like to reconnect with their families.
CCS workers enter information into a shared database, which tracks an individual’s use of services in the county.
Service providers believe this type of information is the missing link in understanding how best to reach and help young people without homes.
Nonprofits and, particularly, charitable foundations have wanted this data for a long time, said Megan Gibbard, coordinator of King County’s homeless youth and young adult program.
“We don’t know nearly as much as we want to,” Gibbard said.
Given how candid teens and young adults are on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, she expects most will be willing to disclose personal information for services.
Gibbard called the consolidated list for shelter and transitional housing, “the mother of all waiting lists.”
The list has 200 teens and young adults in line for any number of apartments, but it’s not first-come, first-served. The county will prioritize who needs housing first based on their needs. People who are already in housing but struggling to meet the requirements of their current housing will get new housing units first, Gibbard said.
By collecting data early, service providers can build relationships and steer youth toward the right housing services, said Julie McFarlane of CCS.
Previously, everyone signed up for whatever shelter or transitional housing program they found, whether or not it was the right fit.
The program will be modified based on feedback from the Homeless Youth Initiative, a group of homeless and formerly homeless teens and young adults organized by the Mockingbird Foundation. The group of eight young people will offer suggestions for revisions in August.
Freedom vs. housing
State law requires that after staff at social service agencies meet a minor, staff members have 72 hours to contact the minor’s guardians or police. Because of this, many minors choose to remain homeless and hide their identities.
A desire for anonymity kept Duling away from services, but it also gave him independence. He had up to 14 or 15 different names he used when he was a homeless teen. Some he made up because he liked them, others he pulled from newspaper obituaries.
Dahkota, a 19-year-old from the Olympia area who joined the Homeless Youth Initiative, kept her identity secret for months after she became homeless in Seattle last summer.
“I didn’t want to admit to myself that this was where my life is,” she said.
Some homeless youth advocates are nervous that the new push for collecting data on homeless youth will further deter them from accepting help. There’s a fine line between hooking someone into services and scaring them away, Cunningham from roots said.
Teens and young adults crave independence more than housing, Cunningham said.
“They’re not as interested in housing as they are in proving themselves to the world,” she said.
Peace for the Streets by Kids from the Streets (PSKS) program coordinator Jaclyn Mellon said data collection will change how PSKS relates to young people.
“We’re very relaxed, we’re very low-barrier,” Mellon said. “We don’t need to know someone’s name, social security number and first born child to help them. It’s the basic essentials.”
Now, she said, PSKS staff and volunteers will have to collect data from everyone who walks in.
“That could deter a lot of people from getting help,” Mellon said.
Dahkota isn’t so worried. After a few months, she opened up to service providers and shared her information. She said she supports the new system because it will get various agencies working together.
Duling, however, said the county should offer shelter without restrictions. He wasn’t willing to sacrifice his independence as a teen, so he stayed hidden behind a number of pseudonyms.
“I just wanted my freedom,” he said. “I figure my mom didn’t love me anymore. Why would I let anyone else care about me?”