Sheltering Seattle Youth, ROOTS

Sheltering Seattle Youth, ROOTS

ROOTS (Rising Out Of The Shadows) began sheltering homeless young adults (aged 18 to 25) three nights a week in 2002. Two years later, they expanded to seven nights a week, and have run continuously–without closing due to lack of staffing or volunteers–ever since.

In 1999, shelter providers across Washington had noticed a downward trend in the number of minors seeking shelter, and a significant unmet need for services for young adults. ROOTS was the first overnight shelter in Seattle specifically designed to meet the needs of homeless young adults, and is one of the only co-ed shelters in the city. Last year, ROOTS expanded their space and added ten new beds in an attempt to address the growing number of young adults being turned away at emergency shelters.

Located in the basement of the University Temple United Methodist Church in the University District, ROOTS feels like an elementary school auditorium. At one end there is a stage; at the other end there are stacks of sleeping mats, racks of used clothing, and a bookshelf.

This used to be a full stage,” explains Kathleen Murphy, one of the shelter managers. “They cut it in half in order to put more bathrooms. The bathroom hallway used to be about five feet wide. When you think about 27 people in the morning trying to access it…” she grimaces. “The lockers back there are also new, so it’s definitely opened it up and made it breathe a little better. When we have a lot of sleeping bags, jackets, towels, all of that–that’s our storage area.

“Over the holidays, we do our big push that gets us through most of the year of socks, hygiene supplies, and things like that. We have an ownership program: if they can help us set up shelter or clean up shelter in the morning, they can work towards something. Our lockers are two dollars of ownership time for a week of storage. Sleeping bags are like half an hour. They can get bus tickets, they can get gift cards when we have them.”

“We also have a computer room that they can access, so if they wanted to do a job search or check up on Facebook or things like that. Facebook is a good way to stay in contact with friends and family, so they can know that you’re alright.”

As long as you’re between the ages of 18 to 25 and you have an I.D. or can get a case manager saying that you’re working on getting an I.D., you can use the shelter. Between 8 and 8:30pm, you call to get on the list. ROOTS currently serves 45 people, so if more than 45 people call in, a lottery takes place. The first person in line is not guaranteed a spot. (When they tried that process years ago, people camped out so early that the myriad apartments and businesses across the street began to complain.)

Once you’re on the list, you can come in around 9pm and there are dinners from 9pm to 10pm. You can sign up for showers and enjoy certain earned privileges, such as watching TV or smoking cigarettes, and ROOTS volunteers do the laundry throughout the night. There are caseworkers present six nights a week.

“Our case management is not our staff,” says Kathleen. “Two of them are from TeenFeed, a local meal program that runs seven nights a week, but they also do case management and outreach. They’re here five nights a week, and the YMCA young adult service center is here with two case managers five nights a week. There’s only one night that’s not covered. It’s great because it’s two different programs, four different people, so if you don’t like one, there might be someone else. And they both have a lot of different things that they offer, so it’s not identical services.”

ROOTS has about 100 volunteers, and the only paid staff are program coordinators and work study students doing overnight shifts. As part of the expansion, ROOTS hired an overnight counselor Throughout the overnight, there are at least five volunteers or staff and as part of the expansion, ROOTS hired an overnight counselor. In the evening there are up to fifteen volunteers serving dinner, and there are volunteer groups that come in just for breakfast.

“This morning it was church ladies from University Congregational,” says Kathleen. “They used to be part of the shelter when it moved from location to location. So one of them–who’s, you know, probably about sixty-five or seventy–she’s like, ‘Alright, I’m gonna lead this group!’ and comes in with all this energy and they cook breakfast at 6 o’clock. It’s them being like, ‘This is what I’ve got,’ you know? And there are professionals that come in before work, and that kind of thing… It takes a community!”

On Fridays from 2 to 5pm ROOTS runs a thrift store that’s open to the public. All the proceeds directly support ROOTS.

“It’s kind of like going to an antique shop where you know you’ll find a good find in there sometime, you just gotta keep looking for it,” says Kathleen.

Each week there is also Friday Feast: a group of volunteers overseen by one staff member prepares a full course meal serving about 150 people.

“Friday is the crazy transition day where everything is going on. But it’s a great community network of all sorts of different folks in the kitchen helping out. There are those who are now off the streets wanting to give back or just community members. For those who are living in shelters, volunteering gives them something to do–it’s productive, it’s keeping them clean. And it’s a community of people that they want to report to and make sure that they know that they’re still doing well.

“No one’s expecting you to come in with some miracle and you’re like, ‘Everything’s perfect!’ Come as you are and we will work with that. We’ve got folks that we know, depending on the time of the month–if it’s the beginning or the end of the month–they’re going to be in very different states. At the beginning of the month, you’re not going to have as many volunteers because they’ve all got money… And you just work with that.”

“Ones that are hard to see are students at UW who want to be in school but can’t afford housing. They’re in school and living at a shelter. It makes me want to walk across the street and say, ‘Okay, we need to have a talk…’ Things like that–we have had and still do have students living here. There’s gotta be a better way.”

ROOTS’ expansion is an answer to the recent economic downturn. Families who used to be able to support their older children can no longer do so. Another common scenario is when a young adult lives with a relative who becomes sick and moves into an assisted living facility, where they can only stay with their relative one night per month.

“Bunk beds were part of the expansion. Instead of adding ten more beds and making it more condensed and uncomfortable for guests, we decided to spread it out so they can move around.”

“There was a goal of trying to make the place a little more–I don’t know if ‘home’ is the right word–but just not white walls, adding something to the walls. This was someone from the University of Washington who wanted to do an art project. So they started above the bathroom door, where they etched something in and then stamped it, so its like the reverse image.

“Then they created maps: the ones with blue borders around them are ones that guests created. They might have picked a map that they’re like, ‘This is where I’m from.’ or like, ‘This one is The Ave; this is basically where I live.’ Their own words and their own descriptions of a map, a different way to relate to them. You know, ‘I’m from Florida; this is that drive that I used to take every day.’ And then all the other things–the birds, the waves–added pieces of the puzzle. It can be your story, it can be whatever; it’s always interesting to see what people come up with.”

“This banner is only a tiny little part. The building south of this church used to be a parking lot and they painted this as a part of the mural that was on that wall. So when they built that building, one of the agreements was that they would put this mural on the canvass for us. A lot of people now don’t even know that that’s where it came from.”

ROOTS has monthly meetings with their guests once the shelter closes. The guests aren’t required to attend, but anyone can give ROOTS positive and negative feedback.

“One of our concerns in growing was that it would feel like an adult shelter, where you come in, no one really cares or wants to get to know you. Some of our guests get the feeling that ‘I’m just a number, I’m just a person walking in,’ when staying at other shelters. For us, I think the uniqueness really has to do with the volunteers running the facility, and that the they want to get to know the guests and the guests want to get to know them–that community aspect. When guests come in and they’re like, “This was awesome!” and like, “Thanks so much!” Those little things always make the difference. That’s why we’re here. Because you need this place. It’s not because you’re homeless: it’s because right now, you need a home.”