Photo by Jessie Stensland / Whidbey News-Times Liz Mickelson, Nikki Shorb and Anna Cavender, from left, sort clothes at a drop-in center at Ryan’s House for Youth in Coupeville. The center has a clothes closet where young people can take clothes and other items they need.

Ryan’s House may lose grant over minor debate

A non-profit organization that serves homeless youth on Whidbey Island may lose a $200,000 grant because of misgivings about a drop-in center that mixes young adults with children.

A state representative who scuttled the grant said Ryan’s House for Youth should take the opportunity to consider what services it can best provide and to what population.

Lori Cavender, executive director and founder of Coupeville-based Ryan’s House for Youth, argues that the legislator’s concerns are misplaced. Cavender said the agency went through a lengthy vetting process with the state Department of Commerce and was due to receive the grant for building repairs and projects when Sheriff Mark Brown stepped in. He wrote a letter expressing concerns to state Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton, and the grant was pulled from a House bill.

Smith said Brown is just one of “a number of people” in the community who contacted her to express apprehensions about the drop-in center. The grant application from Ryan’s House states that there aren’t any community concerns, which hasn’t proven to be completely accurate, she said.

Smith said the state has very limited dollars for many grant requests across the state; it’s not unusual for a request to fail the first time around, but it gives the community a chance to refine the proposal and bring it back.

Cavender and others in the community are asking residents to contact their elected officials in Olympia and tell them to support the grant.

“Sheriff Brown has the right to his own opinion,” Cavender said. “But when it jeopardizes something that is going to bless the community, we need to have other people express their thoughts as well.”

Cavender started the program out of her home seven years ago, which evolved into a popular youth drop-in center in Freeland. The group purchased a former motel just outside of Coupeville last year.

The Coupeville campus is the site of a transitional housing for homeless adults, ages 18-24 and a drop-in center for youth ages 12-24. The center has a TV, games, couches and a kitchen stocked with food. Kids can use a shower or wash clothes. It’s always supervised, she said, by at least one staff person, and there’s almost always a few adult volunteers there as well.

The youth who live at the center are tasked with chores each day in the center.

A vital aspect of the drop-in center, said Cavender, is that it allows the group to be in contact with youth in need and provide them case management services for mental health, substance abuse and other issues.

The group also runs a host-family program that matches families with homeless children; the drop-in center is where the staff members first get to know the kids, she said.

The heart of the center, she said, is the clothes closet. It’s a room filled with clothes, school supplies, camping supplies and much more. The youth are welcome to take what they need.

“We have everything from swimming suits to prom dresses, and everything in between,” she said.

Cavender said she’s also in the process of setting up a space for a nurse practitioner to provide medical services.

Cavender said she doesn’t see the mixing of young adults and minors as a problem. She points out that nearby Coupeville Middle and High School allows children as young as 12 or 13 to mix with 18- and 19-year-olds, but with much less supervision than there is at the drop-in center.

The same ages are together at many other places, she said.

She also said that it’s an accepted practice in the state to have drop-in centers that serve a mixed population of teenagers and young adults. She has a list of Seattle drop-in centers and shelters, most of which serve the mixed population.

The reality, however, seems to be that young teenagers rarely if ever spend much time with the older youth in these centers.

Shoshana Wineburg at Orion Center is Seattle explained in an email that most of the youth who go to that drop-in center are 18 and older. The few minors are usually in their late teens. The staff has a different response when working with minors, she said. They are immediately pulled from the general milieu in the center “to get their story and assess their needs.”

Smith said she’s seen a greater emphasis recently on youth safety and the segregation of minors in youth centers in capital-facilities grant requests from organization serving children, including a youth organization in Everett.

Brown explained that his concern with Ryan’s House is that the drop-in mixes potentially vulnerable children with young adults, many of whom may have mental health or substance-abuse problems. For Brown, it’s about safety for minors, particularly the potential for sexual exploitation.

“I am not saying that all persons,” he wrote in his letter to Smith, “taking advantage of emergency and/or transitional housing are by definition chemically addicted or mentally ill. But, what I am saying is the potential risk of a juvenile being harmed in a mix of potentially vulnerable populations is not a risk worth taking.”

In addition to safety concerns, Smith said there are also worries that Ryan’s House may be spreading its resources too thin in serving both young adults and children.

Brown and Smith agree that nobody wants to see Ryan’s House close. They also agree there is a need for transitional housing for young adults in the community, as well as a drop-in center for minors. Brown believes the two services should be at two separate places. He suggests that Ryan’s House focus on the housing, which he sees as the greater need.

Brown emphasized that he supports youth services and is on a committee to build a youth center in Oak Harbor.

Last year, homeless advocates counted more than 100 homeless children in the schools on Whidbey.

Brown questions the meaning of that statistic. Just a few children each year, if that, end up living outdoors, which he considers to be the truly homeless. Most of the children on the list are teenagers who don’t live at home but “couch surf” at various homes, relying on a series of other family members, friends and acquaintances for the essentials of life.

Cavender said she follows the McKinney-Vento Act when defining homelessness. Under that law, people who are couch surfing or are “doubled up” may be considered homeless. She said these people need services as well as those living on the streets.

Couch surfing can still be very dangerous. There are plenty of cases filed in superior court over the years of underage girls, for example, who are sexually assaulted at friends’ or acquaintances’ homes after either running away or being kicked out of their homes.

Brown concedes that his perspective is influenced by his training in law enforcement, particularly in the area of incarceration. His staff has to abide by very strict rules that separate adults in jails from children in juvenile detention. The children aren’t supposed to even be able to hear sounds from the adult jail.

While the law draws a bright line separating children from adults at age 18, Cavender said the real-world reality isn’t that black-and-white. Science has shown that young people have the same basic brain structure until about age 25.

“It’s really just one man’s opinion,” she said. “And that one man has a badge.”