Finding Spare Rooms for Homeless Young Adults

Accelerator YMCA has facilitated 21 host homes since 2016 and aims for 50 more over the next two years.

by Judy Furlong

For Scott Schubert of Accelerator YMCA, the equation is simple:  In December 2016, Gene Balk of The Seattle Times estimated there were 200,000 empty bedrooms in King County, and in January the All Home King County Count Us In Report counted over 1,500 young adults with no place to call home.

“So if you think about that, we can really eliminate this problem with the help of our community,” Schubert said.

In June 2016, Accelerator YMCA, located in the Mount Baker neighborhood, launched Host Homes, which matches King County residents with a spare room with young adults in need of housing. The hosting commitment is up to six months, although some choose to host longer.

To date, the Host Homes program at Accelerator YMCA has facilitated 21 host homes, according to Schubert, program director of young adult services.

The Host Homes Program Spotlight, distributed at a recent open house, reported 86 percent of participants moved on to permanent housing; 83 percent had a source of income upon exit (compared to 41 percent at enrollment); and for those with increased income, the average increase was $700 per month.

Host Homes was an attractive option because of its community involvement and low cost, Schubert said. Accelerator received funding from the Raikes and Medina foundations to pilot the program, and more recently has received additional funding from King County and the Pearl Jam Fund.

Schubert said Host Homes has a thorough vetting process which has been key for successful matches. The young-adult participants are interviewed about the environment they are looking for in a host home, and prospective hosts are interviewed so they can ask questions and get a fuller understanding of the program. Hosts go through an application process, including training and background checks.

Both hosts and youth participants can specify what they are looking for in a match. For instance, an LGBTQ youth or host can request a match with a similar background. In the Count Us In report, 28 percent of youth and young adults under 25 were LGBTQ.

After a prospective match is made, the parties meet with the case manager at a neutral place, such as a coffee shop. Either party can request multiple follow-up meetings, Schubert said.

After the parties have decided to move forward with the match, the youth and case manager visit the house of the host(s) so the participant can get a feel for the home environment and consider practical considerations, such as access to transit.

According to Emily Meltzer, director of development and communication at Accelerator, the flexibility of the program is key to its success. While the commitment is six months, some hosts choose to allow the young adult to stay to complete a specific goal, such as finishing school, and other hosts invite the participant to continue residing at the home as a renter, Meltzer said.

In July 2017, Azia Ruff was four months away from turning 21 and aging out of extended foster care. She had tried living with a friend’s family after moving out of a group home, but it wasn’t working out. She had a part-time job working for The Mockingbird Society, a nonprofit dedicated to improving foster care and ending youth homelessness, but she was in danger of becoming homeless herself.

Ruff’s case manager at Accelerator suggested she try the Host Home option. Within a month of applying, she moved in with Lex Voorhoeve and Marjon Riekerk of Crown Hill.

“They were grounded, which is what I needed to be around because I was not a grounded person, either in myself or in my life,” Ruff said.

Lex and Marjon SSE
Alexander Voorhoeve and Marjon Riekerk of Crown Hill have provided a host home for a young adult twice since August 2017. Currently they are also having a block home built in their backyard to house a homeless mother with a newborn. (Photo: Judy Furlong)

Although Voorhoeve and Riekerk were friendly, Ruff said she kept her distance because she didn’t feel ready to engage.

“They did a good job of navigating that, and I was able to just breathe,” Ruff said. “When I entered the Host Home program, I was just looking for a roof over my head. I was not at all interested in seeing another human being as a loving thing — that was not something I was interested in or even ready for.

“Lex and Marjon had a big part in dispelling that for me — just like in the quiet way that they welcomed me and loved me. It opened me up to the idea that people can care about other people for no reason,” Ruff said.

Ruff lived with the couple from August 2017 until January 2018, when she moved into her own apartment, and Voorhoeve and Riekerk welcomed another young adult from the Host Homes program.

Voorhoeve and Riekerk have also agreed to have Facing Homelessness build a block home in their backyard for the Block Project, which enlists volunteers to build small homes for the unhoused. The couple has opted to have a rotation of single mothers with newborns living in the 200-square-foot home, which is scheduled to be completed by the end of the year.

Riekerk said the roots of their desire to help others came from traumatic events in each of their childhoods during World War II. She was living in Holland and was sent by her family to the countryside because the Germans were systematically starving the people in the city. For five months, a family she had never met cared for her.

Voorhoeve is also Dutch but grew up in Indonesia. During the war, he was sent to an internment camp where Dutch residents were being held by the Japanese. He and his brother were separated from their parents, and for three years they relied on others to look after them in the camp.

“We’re paying back,” Riekerk said.

In July, Accelerator partnered with Friends of Youth, an independent nonprofit which has a host home program in East King County, to form Host Homes King County. The two organizations have separate staff but are coordinating host-home training and recruiting.

The host home model has been around internationally for at least 30 years. There are two programs in the U.K. that began operating in the late 80s:  Night Stop, which has been providing nightly host homes for youth since 1987,  and The Albert Kennedy Trust, which has been providing host homes for LGBT youth since 1989.

The GLBT Host Home Program in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the first reported host home program in the United States, was launched in 1997 to serve LGBTQ young adults. It currently has three programs, including two specifically for LGBTQ youth, in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.

Ryan’s House for Youth, located in Coupeville, Washington, on Whidbey Island, was founded in 2000, and may have been the first host home program in the state. Ryan’s House provides host homes for participants aged 12 to 24.

The biggest challenge for Accelerator and the newly formed Host Homes King County has been enlisting hosts. Although Accelerator is located in the South Seattle area, so far they have had only three host homes in that location.

Ruff, who grew up in Columbia City, said it was difficult to be far from her community after she entered the foster-care system. While she was in a group home in Kirkland, she chose to commute to Columbia City to attend Interagency Academy, an alternative school.

Host Homes King County also has kinship host homes, where someone in the young person’s community provides housing for the young adult. Schubert said that model is often the best option because it reconnects the young adult to their community.

“Our relationship with them is this short intervention, but their natural community is going to be with them beyond that,” Schubert said.

The dynamic of Host Homes is unique, Ruff said.  “It’s not a parental relationship between the host and the hosted, but it’s just like a community-connection relationship.”

Ruff said the program left her with the belief that if young adults are given what they need to do the work and do it in a place where they can be themselves, positive change will happen.

“A lot of good things will happen when people are allowed to be themselves and aren’t struggling to survive.”


Featured Photo: Azia Ruff, 21, grew up in Columbia City but was forced to live outside her community when she entered the foster care system at 15. She found herself facing homelessness after aging out of foster care. (Photo: Judy Furlong)

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