November 13, 2013
Vol: 20 No: 46

Feature

A lottery at Orion Center

By Aaron Burkhalter , Staff Reporter

As Orion Center’s overnight shelter for homeless teens faces closure, only the lucky ones get to stay

When he first visited the Orion Center, above, earlier this year, Brandon liked the mood of the drop-in center. He plays pool, left, on a recent Wednesday and stays at the center overnight through the emergency shelter program. The 15-bed shelter could close in February if YouthCare is unable to find new funding for the program.

Photo by: Wes Sauer , Contributing Photographer

Damien Phillips plays guitar at the Orion Center on a recent Wednesday. Phillips stayed at the center’s overnight emergency shelter until earlier this year, when he was hired as an outreach worker for the center. Now he worries about his friends who are still at the overnight shelter. They may be forced outside if the program closes in February.

Photo by: Wes Sauer , Contributing Photographer

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When Brandon walked into YouthCare’s Orion Center on Denny and Yale earlier this year, he found a ring of black couches around a small television, a pool table and a collection of musical instruments.

It was warmer than where he’d been living — outside, near Harborview Medical Center — but what struck him most was the mood: The room was calm. A crowd watched a movie, others tinkered on guitars and a black, upright piano and a few people played pool.

“I got that vibe instantly when I first came here,” said Brandon, 21, who asked us to withhold his last name. “It felt right. I thought, I’m going to be here a while.”

The only overnight shelter program for young adults downtown will end in February unless YouthCare, the city and county can find more funding for it. Brandon and some 400 other youth who frequent the center will still be able to use the space during the day.

A number of YouthCare’s funding sources expired and were not renewed this year, creating a shortfall of

$1.2 million. It costs YouthCare $350,000 a year to operate the shelter. A private grant paid for most of that.

YouthCare has an annual budget of $10.2 million. Government contracts comprise 65 percent of that and the rest is funded by grants and individual donations.

The impending closure comes at a turning point for shelter in Seattle and King County, said Kristine Cunningham, executive director of ROOTS Young Adult Shelter.

For years, Seattle and King County have emphasized outreach programs and transitional housing over emergency shelter.

The King County Coalition to End Homelessness recently issued a report signaling a shift toward more shelter, however. 

“Funding shelter is really tough,” Cunningham said. “It hasn’t been an ongoing priority for the public.”

The closure of the Orion Center’s shelter will cut a quarter of the 80 shelter beds reserved for homeless young adults in King County. ROOTS houses 45 young adults each night in the University District, and Friends of Youth houses 15 in Redmond.

YouthCare and other nonprofits have asked the King County Council to spend $780,000 on emergency shelter and street outreach, some of which would help keep the Orion Center shelter open.

Seattle City Councilmember Sally Clark is also asking for $130,000 from the city to fund the shelter.

If those come through, the shelter could stay open, McLendon said. The group needs just $250,000 to keep the shelter open five days a week.

Until that funding is secured, YouthCare is maintaining a scaled-back shelter. Earlier this year the Orion Center housed 20 young adults. On Nov. 3, the organization distributed 15 beds by lottery.

“It was really emotional for the youth and for the staff,” McLendon said of the lottery process.

Damien Phillips, who stayed at the shelter before he was hired to do outreach for YouthCare said the lottery caused angst among the center’s youth.

“I didn’t like how they did that at all,” Phillips said.

Phillips moved out of shelter into an apartment in Belltown this year, but his girlfriend was one of the lucky few allowed to stay.

“I know everybody who goes there,” said Phillips, 21. “They’re like family.”

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