by Kelsey Hamlin
Nearly a dozen South End area youth spoke up, literally, about the city’s homelessness crisis Thursday as part of the 206 Forward/ Youth Advocates of Seattle speech competition.
Held at the Rainier Beach Community Center, the competition was both an effort to improve the public speaking skills of 10 youth involved in the 206 Forward program, and to advocate for an issue top of mind for many of them.
Ranging from 8th grade to high school, the 206 Forward youth chose to center their speeches on homelessness as a part of the group’s planned advocacy work. The issue has impacted many of them directly. 206 Forward also plans on building tiny homes in February for the city’s unhoused.
Founded in 2014 by local youth, and led by Meghan Patiño and Tika Woods, the program is a part of the Seattle Parks and Recreation Program and Seattle’s Youth Employment and Service Learning.
“We’re focusing on homelessness because it’s affecting communities around Seattle,” said James, a 206 Forward youth.
He stood in front of a tree diagram taped to a whiteboard. Listed on it were several items he and his cohort brainstormed for several weeks as root causes of homelessness: mental illness, domestic violence, gentrification and more.
In his speech, James focused on family problems as a root cause. Each year, 380,000 unaccompanied minor youth experience a runaway or homeless episode lasting a week or more, according to The National Alliance to End Homelessness.
James’ own sister had such an experience for two months after an argument with their mom. There are some simple solutions in James’ mind, though: Counselors, tutors and mentors. Prior to the argument, his sister barely attended school.
Another 206 Forward youth, Wilson spoke about systemic racism and oppression.
“All systems are flawed but we cannot make that an excuse,” Wilson said. “There are systems in place right now that are denying the oppression some people have.”
He went on to explain how some communities and identities are more impacted than others. Wilson’s examples?
Black transgender women who, Wilson claimed, most often are forced by society to resort to exploitative professions in order to make a living.
“They are funneled into homelessness,” he said, “and can’t get out of it. Then they are barred from re-entering society.”
Two participants focused on gentrification. One explained when higher rents show up in neighborhoods, small businesses then seeing their own rent increase. Another, Yonis, explained how this impacts the Central District.
Raqda, another 206 Forward member, said the foster care system can attribute to homelessness. The age limit for staying in foster care is 18 years old. Without resources or a place to stay, youth can age out of the system into homelessness.
Another root cause? The school to prison pipeline, said longtime 206 Forward member Mikayla.
“The juvenile justice system is the number one cause of homelessness,” she said. This leads to kids missing or not returning to school. Their stays within the system also goes on record and limits their ability to obtain future jobs, scholarships and opportunities.
Mikayla pointed out how people of color disproportionately represent the juvenile population. She advocated, instead, for the system to implement restorative justice practices.
Another youth, Soma, spoke about domestic violence as a root cause. Women, comprising most of the domestic violence victims, often find themselves in financially dire straits upon if choosing to leave their abuser – an entry point into homelessness.
One member, Janelle, expressed shock at seeing a veteran with an amputated leg on the street, homeless and asking for money. She explained that there were some veterans, who couldn’t afford necessary medical services, and end up with loads of medical debt, also a precursor to becoming unhoused.
“Homelessness is not a stranger in Seattle, we all know that,” said another member, Francesca.
Her focus was complete social acceptance for the LGBTQIA+ community. Across the nation, some schools still do not categorize ridicule or aggression towards members of the community as bullying.
Even homeless shelters can perpetuate microaggressions and conflict upon someone from the LGBTQIA+ community seeking emergency housing.
“We as a community need to watch out for each other,” Francesca said, “and that should always be a priority.”
Patiño congratulated 206 Forward for overcoming their nerves to speak publicly.
“This is how you grow,” she said. “There are adults that don’t choose to do that, to have a blind spot.”
Note: Because those speaking Thursday night are minors, South Seattle Emerald will only be using their first names.
Kelsey Hamlin is a freelance reporter with various Seattle publications. She graduated with interdisciplinary Honors, a B.A. in journalism and a minor in Law, Societies & Justice from the University of Washington. Hamlin served as President and VP for the UW’s Society of Professional Journalists over the past two years. Find her on Twitter @ItsKelseyHamlin or see more of her articles on her website.
Featured image by Ericka Guan