by Marcus Harrison Green
Some called it a sanctuary from the street life’s savage grip. Some called it home when other doors closed shut. Some credited it with seeding their first sense of self-worth, hope, and belonging.
People congregated by the dozens on Tuesday afternoon at the Seattle Union Gospel Mission’s [UGM] Youth Reach Out Center, to testify to the enduring impact of its programs and speak out against its closure.
“I literally had to hear [the news] confirmed from three different sources,” said Marty Jackson, the director of the Southeast network for Seattle’s Youth Violence Prevention Initiative.
Jackson joined more than a hundred community members for a 3pm rally outside of the Mission in the Othello neighborhood, gathering to voice their displeasure over UGM’s decision to lay off thirteen staff members and cease its long standing youth services programs, including after school drop-ins across the city.
According to the Mission, the program cuts came after three successive years of budget challenges that until this year had been offset by “non-recurring revenue”. Though the mission originally incorporated this revenue into their budget forecast it never materialized, unfortunately leaving the organization with a $5 million shortfall.
With a contracted budget, the Mission chose to focus its efforts on servicing Seattle’s swelling homeless population.
UGM informed staff of their layoffs in August, and provided them with severance pay until the end of the month, along with money based on time worked and COBRA medical insurance for those with benefits. Nine of the thirteen staff members that have been laid off have received offers for other positions in the Mission.
The 85 year old organization also says it has reached out to local outfits, such as Urban Impact, to direct the programs it can no longer fund.
However, the organization’s initial handling of the news with the wider community left many in attendance feeling blindsided.
“There was no communication. No feedback,” said Jackson, who daily works directly with children at the Rainier Vista Community Center. “If you look at the crime data it more than justifies having a place like this open. We have to think about what happens to our kids, what happens to the most vulnerable among us. Where do they go if nowhere else is opening their doors?”
Others viewed UGM ceasing youth program funding as a symptom of a larger issue plaguing many South Seattleites.
“This is another example of South King County gentrification. I’m here to support but protesting isn’t going to do anything. We don’t have enough money, and without it we’re not powerful enough to stop what’s coming. This area will look like Columbia City in two years,” said a man identifying himself as “Fresh.”
As he spoke, Fresh gestured to the Assembly 118 apartment complex towering in the background, and overlooking the demonstration several yards away from the skyline. The complex will have only market rate housing, as its developers chose the option of paying a fee to “support affordable housing elsewhere” rather than incorporate on site.
For Fresh the juxtaposition of the Othello neighborhood’s newest addition against the YROC building that had been a community bedrock for more than 35 years, starkly epitomized the problem at hand in a rapidly changing city.
After a half hour outside, the rally quickly moved into the Mission’s auditorium for a town hall style gathering with some Mission board members in attendance, including Mission President Jeff Lilley. Before community members filed into the seats, Jonathan Amosa, an event organizer, asked every to keep the meeting “respectful” while acknowledging the fever-pitched emotions in the room.
Amosa started the succession of a dozen staff, parents, mentors, and supporters who had at one time walked through the building’s door as children, returning now as adults shaped by their experiences within its four walls.
“The Union Gospel Mission saved my life,” Amosa began, clutching a microphone set up for speakers. “I wasn’t a bad kid but I hung out with bad kids. To see how this was handled is what angered me. We must remain a community,” he said pausing momentarily as he fought back tears.
He concluded with a quote about the need to “pick up pieces that are broken and do something great,” extolling those present to “allow the community to pick up the pieces and do something great.
Next came 17 year-old Cyrus Kirk, who began coming to the mission in 6th grade.
“[The Mission] made me grind harder and smarter. Taking this program away from us is not a good path. Taking it away will cause pain. The Union Gospel Mission is the best thing in the South End right now.”
Those succeeding Kirk spoke about the Mission’s youth programs as “heart work”, and their absence causing a potential uptick in violence with “thousands of kids on [Rainier] and Henderson getting shot down.” One young man spoke about it being one of the rare places in the city where he could fit in “with people who looked liked him,” where elsewhere he had felt alienated.
When it was her turn to speak a parent named Kim sobbed uncontrollably. She shared about the Mission being a place she always felt comfortable dropping her child off, knowing they’d be safe.
Still others spoke about the Mission deterring them from drug-dealing and gang-banging when it opened up for impromptu basketball games, the fact there is funding for penitentiaries but not youth programs, and the fear that the Mission would sell the Othello site given it being a hot commodity located so close to the light rail station.
A woman named Luisa, talked about the Mission as a rite of passage. UGM provided her with her first job as a fourteen year old student raised by a single mother. With the program’s closing, she asked what single mothers, grandmothers, and fathers would do, as the Mission annually provided Valentine’s Day events honoring single parents. “You rely on these places to build you up, when you can’t love yourself.”
She also challenged UGM’s decision to concentrate its resources around the city’s homeless crisis.
“If you want to prevent homelessness, it’s having a place for people to go to not get involved in drugs, and bad pathways,” she said.
After a few other community members spoke, including Paul Patu and former mayoral candidate Nikkita Oliver, both stressing that UGM comply with demands made earlier in the day by community members.
They included UGM providing a year of transition pay for recently laid off workers, a public apology, and a “do no harm” policy going forward in its decision making process that would be vetted by the community impacted by future budgetary determinations.
Union Gospel Mission president Jeff Lilley finally came to the microphone to explain the cuts.
After praising the community turnout he said, “An apology is easy to give. I’m so, so sorry,” acknowledging that the execution of the decision had been painful and did indeed hurt people.
He then addressed the Mission’s budget hole, and the reasoning behind the decision, sharing a passage from the biblical book of Job about helping “individuals you do not know.”
Lilley then stressed that UGM was not completely walking away from the community, as it will not sell the building which housed the YROC youth outreach program for the past 35 years. He also talked about the urgency of helping houseless individuals, referencing a woman who had feces layered in her blanket.
Telling those gathered he realized they did not “see him as one of them today,” Lilley, looking as weary as the biblical character he previously referenced, said that he hoped they could come together soon and urged everyone to stay involved in determining what programs will be resurrected once UGM’s community partners are in charge of them.
Lilley urged concerned community members to channel their passion over the YROC building and its lost programs into actively assisting in the creation of new programs, and also bringing more community partners to the table in this endeavor.
“This community needs to continue to keep fighting,” he said.
If Tuesday was an indication, the community has its gloves up.
Marcus Harrison Green, is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of the South Seattle Emerald. He writes a regular column on South Seattle personalities, social movements, juvenile justice and American society’s marginalized. He is a former scholar-in-residence at Town Hall Seattle, a past Reporting Fellow with YES! Magazine, and a recipient of Crosscut’s Courage Award for Culture. He currently resides in the Rainier Beach neighborhood and can be followed on Twitter @mhgreen3000