Diamond-shaped yellow signs posted on Metro buses let teens know the buses are a “Safe Place” where they can ask for help.
When that happens, drivers radio dispatch, where operators contact on-call staff from YouthCare, Friends of Youth and Auburn Youth Resources. Somewhere along the route, a staff person will meet up with the bus, and take the teen to a shelter to connect them with services.
Pending cuts to Metro buses could diminish the largest network of Safe Place sites.
King County is preparing to eliminate 72 bus routes and reduce or revise another 84 to fill the transit agency’s $75 million budget shortfall. Among the cuts could be routes serving rural communities and late-night buses.
The loss could hurt the Safe Place program, said Julia Kaplan, a Safe Place coordinator who works out of Auburn Youth Resources. She is one of the people who takes calls late at night if a teenager walks onto a bus looking for help.
“It’s almost never during regular hours,” Kaplan said. “Kids are getting kicked out, it’s night and they need somewhere to sleep.”
One night earlier this year, while Kaplan was asleep, Metro called her cell phone to get help for a 13-year-old girl who had been kicked out of her home. She’d been kicked out before, and a school counselor suggested she get on a bus and ask for help if it happened again.
She did and eventually met Kaplan at a transit center.
If rural and late-night buses are cut, teens might have trouble finding a Safe Place location. Most other sites are businesses, libraries or community centers that close at night.
“[Metro is] definitely a huge part of what makes our program tick,” Kaplan said.
Organizations are looking elsewhere to make up for the loss in Metro.
“The way we’re going to deal with bus cuts is to go out and make a real effort to increase the number of Safe Place sites,” said Jim Blanchard, executive director of Auburn Youth Resources.
YouthCare established Safe Place in 2011, starting with a partnership with Metro. The organization has since expanded, with an annual cost of $260,000. Now three organizations — YouthCare, Friends of Youth and Auburn Youth Resources — manage the program with almost 200 non-Metro Safe Place sites throughout King County.
The program helped about 62 teens in 2013, and it is becoming more popular. In the first quarter of 2014 the program has helped 21.
About half the teens seeking help head to a Safe Place site, and a quarter of those cases it’s a Metro bus.
Since the program began, drivers have picked up teens in White Center, Burien, Renton and Bellevue and other locations.
“It’s really Metro and the libraries because they have such a broad reach across the county,” said Liz Trautman, spokesperson for YouthCare.
Safe Place is a national nonprofit that turns businesses, community centers and buses into havens for youth who are in crisis. Safe Place sites include all of the King County Library System branches, city halls, community centers and businesses. Teens can also call 800.422.TEEN for help.
King County voters rejected a proposal in April to fund buses and road repairs with an increase to the county sales tax and a $60 car-tab fee. Seattle Mayor Ed Murray is working to preserve buses within the city limits with a city sales tax, but Metro is moving forward with the cuts until the city produces a funding source.