Whether it’s a snack or a dinner, a shirt or a jacket, a place for a quick nap or for the night, Community Youth Services is there, offering a hand up to teens on the run.
Since 1970 when the program was first founded as the Thurston Youth Services Society to help deter rising crime, CYS has been a friend and a rescue place for kids at risk. Today, CYS offers 20 different programs, employs 85 full-time and 15 part-time and assists three to four thousand kids a year.
CYS has three contact points, places teens first meet the program. Outreach workers go into the streets where the homeless kids congregate and hand out hygiene supplies, snacks and a pamphlet about the program.
“They’re out there building relationships,” said Susan Alexander, CYS development director. “Sometimes it just takes one meeting. Sometimes it takes months for the kids to say, ‘Okay, Ill come in.’”
Another contact point is the drop-in center at the CYS building near State and Plum streets in downtown Olympia. Kids can come in and get a meal, some clean clothing and can even use a computer or watch TV. They can also talk with a counselor or take a nap.
“Sleeping is a big thing because when they’re out on the street it’s hard for them to sleep,” Alexander said. “They don’t feel safe when they go to sleep. One guy told me he went to sleep and when he woke up his boots where gone.”
The third entry point to CYS is a crisis shelter called Haven House. It’s in a residential area in Olympia and has 10 beds.
“If you come in off the street and say my father just kicked me out and I have no place to sleep tonight, that’s where you can go,” Alexander said.
Teens can stay there a month, sometimes two months.
“Their job is to get that kid home safely or if that’s not an option, then find a place,” Alexander said.
Finding that safe place could lead that teen to CYS’s Foster Care program. CYS has 35 Foster Care families who have received special training and have a network of counseling and medial support available to them.
“We always need Foster Care families,” Alexander said.
From the start, when that teenage in need first walks through CYS’s door, the objective is stabilization.
“If you’re sick, let’s get you to the doctor,” Alexander said. “If you’re traumatized, let’s find out who you need to talk to. If you’re strung out on drugs, let’s get you drug treatment. If you don’t know where you’re going to sleep tonight, let’s make arrangements. If you dropped out of school but you want to be in school, let’s get you signed up. Whatever you need to get stable, let’s get that done.”
To help resolve family problems that caused that teen to run from home, CYF has a family reconciliation program aimed at getting that child back into their home.
“Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t,” Alexander said.
Alexander has heard many reasons why a teen bolts their home and becomes homeless.
“This one’s mother’s boyfriend is paying too much attention to the daughter, so the daughter runs away,” Alexander said. “Or the mother kicks her out. Or this mother’s boyfriend doesn’t like the kid. So he kicks him out. Or he’s beating him up and he has to run away. Or the father is in the Army and the mother just got taken to jail. Or the kid just got released from juvee and he went home and his family had moved. I could go on all day.”
“I want to say our oldest kids in our program are 23,” Alexander said. “At the end, kids will say about us, ‘You’re the only family I’ve ever known.’”
Sometimes, that relation with CYS and a homeless teen is the difference between life and death. Alexander has heard the thank yous, the emotional stories of overcoming.
“I’ve heard kids say, ‘I’d probably be dead if it weren’t for CYS,’” Alexander said.
Sometimes, Alexander also hears kids say they’re going to go to college to get a degree in social work and come back to CYS to work.
“We do have staff that has come up that way,” Alexander said.
The objective of CYS is to give homeless teens a sense of belonging and help them get back on their feet, pursuing a career.
“We want getting to feel a sense of self worth and self realization and self determination,” Alexander said. “We want them ask, ‘Who am I? What would I like to be doing?’”
The prodding message the teens get is that they have to work, they have to go to school.
“That’s the number one goal – self sufficiency,” Alexander said. “If you are sick, it’s going to be had to be self sufficient. If you are on heroin, it’s going to be hard to be self sufficient.”
As a 41-year-old program, CYS has built a strong partnership with local drug programs and makes referrals. It also connects youths with job-training programs, helping them get a work skill like carpentry or electrical.
Helping turn a life around isn’t easy. But Alexander has seen some extraordinary success stories. One 15-year girl, Rosie, had been in and out of about 15 Foster Care homes and she was getting worse in terms of her behavior as she got more angry and more bitter.
“Her MO when she moved into a home was to trash the place,” Alexander said. “Her favorite way of doing it was bringing in the garden hose and soaking the whole house. When she was asked why she did it, she said she wanted to see if they could stand her. If they were going to throw her out, she wanted to know.”
Naturally, after their home was trashed, the Foster Care parents would say they couldn’t put up with Rosy. But that changed one day when an expecting mother who had taken Rosy in sat her down after she had hosed down her living room.
That Foster mom told Rosie, “I’m not kicking you out. You can do that every day if you want. But I’m not kicking you out. You’re staying. We’re a family.”
That changed Rosie’s life. She’s now attending college after living in that home for several years.
“For her to know that they would love her no matter what she did changed her,” said Scott Hanauer, clinical director for CYS. “It’s an unconditional commitment. No matter what she did, they’d still love her.”
Alexander said that 90 to 92 percent of CYS’s funding comes from federal, state, county or city government. The remaining 10 to 8 percent comes from private grants or individual donations.
“It’s stories like Rosie’s that keep you going,” Alexander said. “It is exciting to work here.”