Advocating for homeless youth in Bellingham
The Northwest Youth Services headquarters stands adjacent to the construction developments of an affordable housing project on North State street on Tuesday, May 22. The nonprofit organization provides housing and outreach services to Whatcom County youth aged 13-24 who are experiencing homelessness. // Photo by Roisin Cowan-Kuist
By Isabel Lay
“Even if you have all the privilege in the world, being 15 is still really hard,” Jenn Daly, director of development and communications at Northwest Youth Services, said.
The local nonprofit was founded 41 years ago by three community members: a police officer, a social worker and a teacher. It was meant to be a place specifically for young people experiencing homelessness to get help, said Northwest Youth Services community relations coordinator Sigourney Gundy.
“[The founders] saw a need within the community just through their own work,” Gundy said. “They saw there wasn’t a place for young people experiencing homelessness to go to receive services that were developmentally appropriate.”
In the years since the founding of the organization, the services they provide have changed to meet the evolving needs of the youth they dedicate their time to.
“Our long-term forever mission has been to support young people and build collaborations with them to best understand where they’re at and what they need,” Daly said.
Today, Northwest Youth Services provides not only housing for homeless youth, but also resources like “Street Outreach,” which connects teens on the street with resources like food, places to sleep and showers. Additionally, Teen Court is another resource. It is a court run by teens for teens, where young homeless people are held accountable for their actions in front of a jury of their peers as an alternative to juvenile detention. Finally, support for LGBTQ youth is given through the Queer Youth Project, which supports young people who are struggling with their identity or have simply been kicked out by their parents.
The Queer Youth Project, which first started as just a gathering of LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness six years ago, has grown into a large part of the organization.
“[The project] started as identifying that this is a common thread that the youth we serve tend to have,” Daly said. “We saw that a lot of youth had a similar story of not being able to feel safe at home.”
Queer Youth Project Coordinator Lisa Page said 30 percent of homeless youth in Whatcom County identify as LGBTQ. Roughly 7-10 percent of youth identify as queer. Adding the ostracization that comes with being a part of the LGBTQ community to already being homeless makes it especially difficult for youth to feel accepted, Page said.
The Queer Youth Project works to connect homeless LGBTQ youth with resources like access to family reunification services, programs that allow youth 10 free family counseling sessions and a queer youth gathering every month.
Additionally, the project provides resources like the “Trans-Fashion Treasury,” which gives transitioning youth access to resources they might need to be comfortable with their identity, Page said.
She keeps a file cabinet stocked with chest binders, which restrict a person’s breasts to make them appear less prominent. The treasury also contains makeup, padded bras, concealing underwear and packers, which are used to give the appearance of having a penis.
Page also provides help to individual youth with specific requests like bigger, looser-fitting clothes. The organization also helps trans youth with legal name change fees.
These fees can reach up to $150 to $200 and require the youth to file a petition to their district court and additionally require them to complete an Order for Name Change, which a judge is then required to sign, according to the University of Washington website.
“There are a lot of adults out there who want to be supportive, but they’re afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing,”
Lisa Page, coordinator for the Queer Youth Project.
Page said the treasury serves the needs of the trans community that might not otherwise be met.
These resources are vital to queer youth, Page said. She said 83 percent of LGBTQ youth reported that they “feel alone in the world” and 70 percent of bisexual youth said they were experiencing depression.
Page said the top driver of youth homelessness is parent or guardian rejection or neglect.
“First and foremost, we try to make [LGBTQ youth] understand that what they’re going through is normal and awesome,” Daly said. “We believe in them and we support them in figuring out their path.”
The project is mostly prevention focused, with advocacy as an aspect of it as well. Volunteers, along with Page, help youth advocate for themselves.
“All communities are facing the issue in a different way, we’re definitely not alone in fighting this fight,”
Jenn Daly, director of development and communications at Northwest Youth Services.
Page said the project’s goal is to make sure the program won’t segregate queer youth from their peers and to train other adults to be as aware and compassionate as possible,.
“On the prevention side, it’s a lot of support to help youth feel seen and comfortable and to confirm their identity and help with experiences of gender dysphoria,” Page said. “For homeless youth, it might be the difference between being able to survive or stay safe. It’s a safety mechanism.”
In addition to the treasury, the goal of the Queer Youth Project and Northwest Youth Services is to ultimately get youth back in a more supportive environment, Page said.
To do this, the Queer Youth Project provides 10 free counseling sessions with a queer-affirming therapist. In the session the therapist and youth talk about gender identity exploration and navigation, coping skills, communication skills, mental health issues and whether or not to come out or how to come out.
“It also gives them another supportive adult in their life who they can trust and talk to,” Page said.
The two additional parts of the Queer Youth Program are trainings taught by Page and a group that allows LGBTQ youth from all over the county to convene and talk about their shared experience the third Friday of every month from 4-6 p.m. in the youth room at First Congregational Church in Bellingham.
“When I talk to youth about that they’re like, ‘at a church?’ and I say, ‘yeah, totally at a church.’ There are lots [of] queer-affirming churches, and two of their pastors identify as queer,” Page said. “That’s kind of a beautiful open door to another community that might be supportive for them outside of their family and outside of school.”
As for trainings, Page said they have been successful in helping adults in the community learn how to help homeless youth.
“There are a lot of adults out there who want to be supportive, but they’re afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing,” Page said.
Northwest Youth Services is just one of many youth organizations across the nation battling homelessness head-on.
“All communities are facing the issue in a different way, we’re definitely not alone in fighting this fight,” Daly said.
However, all hope is not lost yet, Page said.
“Individuals are going through transitions and communities are going through transitions,” Page said. “We are all part of that and it’s on us to educate ourselves and to be good advocates, to stay open to learning from other people.”