Photo depicting Colleen Echohawk standing in a downtown street.

Colleen Echohawk Joins YouthCare as Interim CEO

by Ben Adlin

Youth housing and services provider YouthCare, which operates an emergency shelter for young adults in Rainier Beach, announced Wednesday, Sept. 15, that longtime affordable housing advocate and former Seattle mayoral candidate Colleen Echohawk has joined the organization as interim CEO. 

Echohawk, who last May stepped down from a seven-year stint as executive director of the Chief Seattle Club, a Native-led housing nonprofit based in Pioneer Square, said she’s “honored” to step into the leadership role at YouthCare.

“To me this seems like a very natural fit, to jump in alongside the staff and the executive team and the board at YouthCare to support their work [and] to provide some leadership, especially around the areas of diversity and inclusion and racial justice,” she told the Emerald. “That is the heart of the work that I get to do, and I’m excited to join a team that has been providing some of the most essential care for youth here in Seattle.”

YouthCare offers a range of services for youth across the city, including emergency shelter, community and independent living programs, employment services, education, and outreach. In the South End, its South Seattle Shelter opened in 2015, and in January of this year moved to Rainier Beach, at 9416 Rainier Ave. S., where it offers hot meals, lockers, clothing, day shelter beds, and overnight shelter, among other services.

Echohawk won’t remain in the CEO role permanently. Her first day was Tuesday, Sept. 14, and she’s expected to stay for six to nine months, according to Suzanne Sullivan, YouthCare’s chief advancement officer. During that time, the organization’s executive search committee will look for a permanent replacement for former CEO Melinda Giovengo, who left the position last month.

During her interim time as CEO, Echohawk said she wants to make sure “that the shelter in the South End is truly supporting the community in the South End,” adding she hopes to strengthen YouthCare’s partnerships with South Seattle organizations.

“As leader of YouthCare in this interim space, I will be wanting to continue to build on the relationships that I already have in the South End, asking for leadership from the community-based organizations that are in that area,” she said, “especially those that are serving the Black community, serving the Native community, because we know that the disparity in the homeless community is so great.”

According to 2020 data from King County, 21% of unhoused youth identified as Black. Another 21% identified as Native, and 28% identified as Latino. That’s despite those groups making up just 8%, 1%, and 15% of the youth population in the county, respectively, says YouthCare’s statement on antiracism: “While BIPOC communities disproportionately experience homelessness, the racial disparities are highest among Black and Native American communities, whose land — and right to own land — has been systemically stolen.”

Echohawk stressed the importance of community-led solutions, specifically from communities most affected by Seattle’s housing crisis.

“That’s what led me to continue to work in this field,” she said. “We absolutely need to have community members who are leading this work who are from the communities that are most impacted. As a Native person in the city, I have seen Native youth — Native people — experience just incredibly high rates of homelessness.”

The forms of social and institutional oppression that lead to youth homelessness often intersect, YouthCare notes. In King County last year, overall 3 in 5 unhoused youth were People of Color, a third identified as LGBTQ+, and half were navigating mental health challenges without access to adequate resources. A quarter had been kicked out of their homes due to abuse, conflict, or poverty, while a third had spent time in foster care without a stable place to live.

“Those of us who have worked in homelessness in Seattle for a long time, we know — I know — a couple things about the way that our system is failing our city,” Echohawk said. “One of them is that we do not have enough shelter systems, housing, etc., in the South End that really serve the community there. This is something that we’ve known about for a long time in the city, and frankly haven’t done as much work as we could.”

“The second thing is we haven’t had enough community-led initiatives to serve our homeless community and homeless youth,” she continued. “We have to make sure that we are supporting the established community that is down there.”

Giovengo left the organization at the end of August after what Seattle Times reporter Sydney Brownstone described in July as “a period of internal turmoil over allegations of racism” in which current and former staff members criticized Giovengo’s leadership. In a petition sent to the organization’s board of directors, they described witnessing or being on the receiving end of “racist, harmful, abusive, defensive, and dismissive behaviors from Melinda internally for years.”

In an internal email announcing Giovengo’s departure that was obtained by the Times, YouthCare’s board chair wrote that the nonprofit “need[s] to make significant changes to build a more inclusive culture and work environment.”

Giovengo said in a statement at the time, “The last 18 months has presented many challenges to all of us. Much has changed and I feel that it is an important time to step aside and make way for new leadership.”

Echohawk, a member of both the Kitkehahki Band of the Pawnee Nation and the Upper Athabascan people of Mentasta Lake, has lived in Seattle for nearly two decades and said she’s worked alongside YouthCare “for many, many years.” She recalled visits to the organization’s Orion Center, at the corner of Stewart Street and Denny Way, during her early days at the Chief Seattle Club. 

In her bid for mayor she promised a “people-first approach,” which she said the city’s leadership has lacked.

“Being people-first means that we are no longer car-first, no longer big business-first, no longer status quo-first,” she told the Emerald shortly after announcing her candidacy. “It’s asking, ‘Can we become a city where we value our essential workers and a place where they can thrive? Can we become a place where babies have equitable access to preschool, and where every person has a home?’ That’s when we’re a healthier and more prosperous city for everyone.”

Echohawk finished third in the city’s primary election last month, behind former City Council President Bruce Harrell and current Council President M. Lorena González. Adequate housing and shelter space in the city is likely to be a key issue in the November final.

Harrell has incorporated much of the controversial Compassion Seattle ballot measure into his “Homelessness Action Plan,” which would clear encampments on public spaces, spend 12% of the city’s general fund on homelessness, and build 2,000 new emergency shelter beds. But he has also claimed that “the majority of people camping here don’t want assistance” and emphasized earlier this month that “there has to be consequences for that kind of action.”

Echohawk said she hopes the next mayor will focus not just on short-term fixes to Seattle’s housing shortage but also invest in longer-term solutions, especially constructing more affordable housing.

“We’ve got to be clear: The tiny homes, hoteling, all of it is good. It’s going to help us get through this crisis,” she said. “But we have to build housing — affordable housing. Truly, deeply affordable housing is absolutely necessary, and I hope that our next mayor will be laser-focused on getting that done.”

Ben Adlin is a reporter and editor who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and currently lives on Capitol Hill. He’s covered politics and legal affairs from Seattle and Los Angeles for the past decade and has been an Emerald contributor since May 2020, writing about community and municipal news. Find him on Twitter at @badlin.

📸 Featured Image: Photo by Ulysses Curry.

Before you move on to the next story …

The South Seattle Emerald is brought to you by Rainmakers. Rainmakers give recurring gifts at any amount. With around 1,000 Rainmakers, the Emerald is truly community-driven local media. Help us keep BIPOC-led media free and accessible.

If just half of our readers signed up to give $6 a month, we wouldn’t have to fundraise for the rest of the year. Small amounts make a difference.

We cannot do this work without you. Become a Rainmaker today!