Peace for the Streets by Kids from the Streets (PSKS) is a Capitol Hill-based support service for at-risk youth and young adults, started by young adults nearly two decades ago. Like most things in this neighborhood, PSKS is radically nontraditional, existing to serve the ever-changing needs of the community and to help as many people as possible. PSKS understands that most young adults don’t follow the linear flow of shelter to transitional housing to secure housing. Often they live under bridges, in cars or tents in the woods until they can secure their own housing. PSKS’ approach is one of harm reduction–making human safety, health, and security a priority whether their clients are living in abandoned buildings or struggling with substance abuse.
As I step inside, a young lady with a nose ring says, “If you sign in, I’ll give you a cookie.”
“Okay,” I say, and start writing my name on a piece of paper.
“I don’t have a cookie,” she admits. Her name is Alvina, and she’s been volunteering with PSKS for a little over a month.
“That’s okay,” I say.
Two dogs circle the room together, trying to sniff each other. In one corner, there is a family gathered around a TV, watching a movie. Behind them, near some painted lockers, two people sleep and one person eats at a long dinner table. In another corner, there are two computers occupied by women in black puffy coats. As I’m looking around, the door opens behind me and a man with a pit bull enters. The pit bull (dressed in a jacket with a hood) immediately starts eating from a large bowl next to a giant refrigerator as the man signs in. As I meet David Delgado, the on-duty case manager, one of the first two dogs growls at the pit bull, so he takes the dog with us back into his office.
“Sampson’s completely safe,” he reassures me.
Pets are always welcome!
“So right now we’re doing drop-in. We do that three times a week from noon to 3pm. We feed people, they can use our internet, relax with the rest of their family, watch a movie, use the phones. There’s a case manager; I’m the case manager for 25 and under. Jackie, who does outreach–we both do outreach; we both do everything–case manages everyone that I can’t because of city requirements.”
Because of their community focus, PSKS staff and and Core Members do their best to find resources to meet the needs of anyone who walks through their doors. Sometimes this happens through peer to peer connections, consultation with staff and volunteers, or a referral to another community resource that addresses their specific need.
“There’s a low-barrier school next door that teaches the GED,” explains David, “so if the kid misses school or something happens, it doesn’t hurt them.”
PSKS provides the lowest barrier access to GED test preparation in the region: students are required to enroll develop personal goals and a schedule (including a minimum, but flexible, number of hours of weekly class time) to achieve them. Rather than being penalized, the RISK Learning Center works to support students who are struggling to fulfill their commitment and works with them to eliminate barriers to their education, including the cost of testing.
“Our advocacy center looks to the community concerning homelessness. We’re not just a homeless organization: this is a homeless organization where the homeless actually try to make real change in the community. It’s really like a community center. I’ve been working in this field for 13 years and I see more community here than most community services. It probably goes back to the way it started: by a group of youth who were not being treated well in the human services. They were taken in by professionals–to their own homes–and they all sat in the living room and finished their GEDs together. Then they started writing grants and started PSKS. This was started by homeless kids. That’s probably why the structure and the vibe is a lot different. We are not going to restrict ourselves to whatever funding sources we have to go out and meet that community need. We’re one of the very few organizations that does not consider itself a business.”
The memorial wall.
A boy enters and hands David his Social Security card, then turns for the door. On his way out, David calls, “You can leave that open now.” The boy shuts the door. “That’s so… You don’t even know!” David exclaims happily.
“So, I’m in the sticky situation where some of my caseload qualify for services and some don’t. There is a gap. As far as youth services go, there are only two case managers in the whole city that will work with youth 25 and under. In the whole city.”
PSKS fills a critical need in the community for older youth and young adults who are not well served by other youth-centered organizations. Many of these programs age youth out at 22.
“We’re also the only human service actually run by the participants. What makes us different is that the board seeks input from Core Membership about organizational policy, and a minimum of two core members serve as full voting members of the board of directors. Core Members also provide input and support to staff regarding day-to-day operations and program design and delivery.”
The same young boy walks by the door and David says, “Cody, it is so on! Don’t go nowhere, we’re doing something today. Just stay right outside. It is so on.” David thoughtfully places the Social Security card on the center of his desk and smiles, “Sorry, I’ve just been waiting for this for so long.”
“But in the chemical dependency world, I would think of us as a harm reduction program or a low barrier program. You know how people are in different places as far as recovery or trying to get sober? Like precontemplation: not thinking about change; contemplation: thinking about change; preparation: preparing to make change… Some services are good for people in different places.
“I think this is one of those places for people who are in precontemplation: they’re not thinking about making change; they’ve been 86ed from all the other services; they don’t exactly fit in with the mainstream. These are the people who come here. Because we won’t tell you to leave, no matter what, even if you have a dog. It doesn’t matter how old you are. It doesn’t matter if you’re fucked up. It really doesn’t. As long as your behavior doesn’t become unsafe.”
A motivational poster in David’s office with a quote from Bruce Lee.
“And you can make it what you want. If you want to be active–you know, join the CORE, become involved in the policies. If there are issues out in the community, you can bring it to the CORE, make it like a PSKS thing. Next thing you know you have an organization that’s jumping on it.
“Like, we just did 180 loads of laundry for the people of Nickelsville. During the rainstorms, all their blankets were pretty much completely ruined. So in an emergency we jumped out there and took care of them. They have nothing to do with PSKS–well, I shouldn’t say nothing; some Nickelsville people do come here to eat. Anyway, when there’s an issue, we’ll just go out and do it. There are spaces for that type of advocacy; there is employment; there are stipend positions–if you join the CORE you can do things for small stipends; lots of education expenses; lots of social justice and advocacy workshops that we offer or take people to.
“Then there’s case management: if you want to work on your own stuff, you can do it with a case manager or just peer-to-peer, because a lot of it is community help. Some people just come here because they want to eat a meal and sit down for two hours. A lot of human services say, ‘Well, you’re not working on anything, you need to leave now.’ Our philosophy is maybe sometimes people just need to sit down. Maybe a month from now they might think, ‘Hey, I might want to get housing like those other two people by the computers.’
“But anyway, we’re not going to help anyone if we don’t let them in the door.”
You can park your bike inside for a while, if it’s not too crowded. Sampson pictured.
I take a few pictures and ask Alvina some questions. “What’s the best part about volunteering here?”
She thinks about it for a moment and then answers resolutely. “Being able to utilize past experience in a way that can level with people. Being able to connect with someone on the basis of something like being homeless. The stigma surrounding addiction and homelessness is extremely unfair.”
“What’s the hardest part about working here?” I ask.
“Knowing that a lot of these people are struggling.”
Two ladies walk in and ask about getting some food from the refrigerator.
"I'll give you both a high five if you sign in!" she says brightly.
The ladies sign in and Alvina gives them each a high five.