The homeless population has been a point of focus in both national and regional politics, but one thing that rarely makes headlines is the number of people without stable housing who are youth. …
The homeless population has been a point of focus in both national and regional politics, but one thing that rarely makes headlines is the number of people without stable housing who are youth.
In the United States, an estimated 4.2 million youth and young adults experience homelessness and 700,000 are unaccompanied minors.
In the Yelm area alone, it is estimated there are around 200 youth that meet the federal definition of being homeless, but the average conversation about homelessness rarely touches on the topic, said Our Ark Director and Founder Danny Burkett.
“It’s a big issue because they are not seen,” Burkett said. “People don’t see it as a big issue because youth typically stay away from adults and in those visible areas for a variety of reasons.”
In downtown Olympia, Burkett said there are at least 150 kids who live on the streets and his Our Ark organization has worked to reach 50 of them to provide services. Thanks to its volunteers, Our Ark will now expand to the Yelm area.
As a community-based nonprofit, Our Ark works directly with youth and young adults between the ages of 13 and 25. They provide street outreach, mentorship, and job and life skills training as they work to break the cycles of homelessness for youth.
Burkett said that typically homeless youth leave an abusive household. It can stem from mental abuse, sexual abuse or physical abuse. Sometimes the home environment changes and the guardian or parent kicks the child out because they have a new boyfriend or girlfriend their kid doesn’t get along with.
Being homeless is not easy, Burkett said, noting that if people choose to live like that, they’re doing it for a reason. Because abuse is typically done at the hands of an adult, this means homeless youth can be mistrustful of adults. Our Ark works to rebuild that bridge so the youth can get the help they need.
“It can take a full year to gain youth trust on the street,” Burkett said. “You need to have empathy and work to get down to their level so you can see their needs and desires.”
The average age of youth that Our Ark deals with is around 18 years of age, volunteer Wendy Tinker said. Items like wet wipes, and home hosts that will wash laundry, as well as medical and hygiene supplies are also provided by Our Ark.
“It can be something as simple as pop top food since they don’t have a can opener,” Tinker said. “It’s really the stuff we take for granted and these kids are dealing with this.”
Burkett has been working with homeless youth in Olympia for the past five to six years. The organization recently held an orientation meeting with five volunteers as they work to bring Our Ark’s resources into Yelm. Before doing this, Burkett was in the military for 17 years and she also served as the executive director of Stand Up For Kids.
“These are kids that are not in the school system,” Burkett said. “We have to work with them to get identification and work toward their GED so they can move forward. But first we have to start breaking down that mistrust they have and reform their thought process. If you’re on the streets at a young age, all you know is the streets.”
Tinker said that Our Ark has to take each child where they are at in their own development.
“Some kids will come in the program and decide they know better,” Tinker said. “But then after they leave, they usually end up coming back.”
Our Ark will go out several times a week to make contact with and help homeless youth in various locations in Thurston County. Street outreach counselors provide mentorship, food, hygiene supplies, medical supplies and companionship.
“We just sit and have a real conversation with them,” Tinker said.
Our Ark has host families and resources so they can get youth into a home if they need it. The organization then helps them get to the point where they can support themselves to break the homeless cycle.
“These kids have aspirations,” Tinker said. “It’s easy for someone to say they need to get their act together to get a job but they don’t even have something like identification. There are so many barriers for them getting employment while being homeless and then there is the distrust of adults.”
Our Ark is in search of more volunteers. Anyone interested in volunteering can go online to the organization’s website at ourarkyth.org for more information.
“They’re children,” Tinker said. “Everybody deserves love and a chance. If we have the ability to, we should give them that opportunity so they can get off the streets and be in a supportive environment where they are accepted.”
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